November 21, 2018

Living in the Joy of Sukkot

One of my closest friends from childhood, who is of Russian descent, was recently at my 3-year-old daughter’s birthday party here in Los Angeles. After the party, as my wife and I collapsed on the couch, exhausted, he looked at me quizzically and said, “You know, the one thing that really weirds me out is how you Americans constantly make your kids smile for every picture like they’re some mannequin in a store.”

I cracked up and agreed. It does, indeed, seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon. It got me thinking: Why do we do that to our kids? I then started to wonder about the history of happiness and what this all meant for me going into the Jewish holiday season — and in particular, Sukkot. 

Americans’ obsession with happiness is often associated with the phrase written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that says all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Lberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This concept of the pursuit of happiness, which historians believe Jefferson acquired directly or indirectly from the writings of philosopher John Locke, was considered the foundation for maintaining one’s liberty, in that it enabled the individual to perceive and seek the greater good and resist enslavement to the desires and determinations of another — even if, in so doing, the individual needed to sacrifice their immediate personal desires. Alas, that rather complicated concept has largely been overtaken by the notion that we have the God-given right to find happiness in our selfish drive for personal satisfaction, often through materialistic endeavors.

One might see that misperception of happiness becoming the norm through such things as the creation of America’s ubiquitous “Happy Birthday” song in 1926, McDonald’s marketing of the Happy Meal in 1977, and The Walt Disney Co.’s former mission statement, “Make people happy” — along with, of course, the company’s labeling Disneyland “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Why are Americans so obsessed with happiness? And why is happiness so elusive? Even more pressing, what if this pursuit of happiness is misguided and the real treasure is not happiness but joy? 

Joy, a Jewish Conception of Happiness

Although the value of happiness is ingrained in the American psyche, it is not an inherent, fixed part of the human experience. I would argue that it requires construction like any other trait. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, recently wrote about the mistake of telling students to “follow their passions.” Passions are not found, they are developed and worked on, she wrote. Only through a process of investment and development do we develop passions. And the same goes for happiness, which, to be sustained, requires development and cultivation.  

“If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot is the ultimate expression of the joyful life.

If happiness requires construction, there is no better place to start building toward it than with a sukkah. Observing Sukkot, or “tabernacles,” is the ultimate expression of the joyful life. 

To the unacquainted, the holiday of Sukkot seems anachronistic at best. It’s no wonder that in the various studies of American Jewish observance — from the Pew Research Center to Gallup — the surveyors typically want to know how many Jews light Hannukah candles, sit around a seder table for Passover or attend High Holy Days services, but they don’t ask about Sukkot. Observance of the holiday seems to have fallen into oblivion for most Jewish Americans. 

This is ironic because in the days of antiquity, Sukkot was the most significant holiday — mentioned more times in the Bible and involving more animal sacrifices than the other holidays. The Bible even refers to Sukkot as hag (holiday) with no qualifier. And, Jews are enjoined three times to “Be joyous on this holiday” — “Visamachta vichagecha.”

From a rabbinic perspective, Sukkot also stands out. Unlike during Passover, the full Hallel is recited each day of Sukkot. The Mishnah tells us that during the Second Temple period, a water libation ceremony was performed with water drawn from the Gihon spring outside Jerusalem and then brought to the temple, where it was poured on the altar. This ceremony on Sukkot, known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, was accompanied with music and dancing and so much joy that the Mishnah tells us that a person who had not experienced it had never experienced real joy. In Judaism, joy and Sukkot are synonymous. 

Sukkot may even predate the time of Moses. The Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal work written 130 years before the Common Era, notes that Abraham observed the holiday: “And Abraham built sukkot for himself and his servants in the seventh month, and he was the first to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in the Holy Land.” 

The Bible describes two compelling existential reasons for the mandate to sit in a rickety hut. Exodus refers to Sukkot as an agricultural “feast at the year’s end,” and as “chag haasif,” the festival of ingathering, during which, by leaving their homes and entering the transitory booths, Jews make a statement of gratitude, acknowledging that everything comes from God. Likewise, when the Jewish people are about to enter the land, when things are going well, Moses admonishes them to give credit to God, and not to say, “Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh,” or “It is through my strength and my might that I have accomplished all this.”

In Leviticus, when Sukkot is mentioned it is to remind us of the wandering we did in the desert and the total reliance we had on God. The wandering in the desert symbolizes the wandering we all do in life, and the sukkah represents the very transience of life. 

Whether from Exodus or Leviticus, it becomes clear that the cornerstone of the Sukkot experience is hakarat hatov — gratitude. This focus on gratitude may even have had an impact on the early pilgrims to America and the creation of Thanksgiving, also an autumnal holiday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, notes in regard to the Plymouth Rock pilgrims: “Now, they didn’t go out and build huts, obviously. But the notion that one would be thankful for a bountiful harvest was certainly one they would have learned from the Hebrew Bible.”

With such feelings of gratitude, it is no wonder that the liturgy refers to Sukkot as “Zman simchateinu” — the time of our joy. What is joy in Judaism? Maimonides, the great medieval legalist and philosopher wears both hats when he tells us that joy, simcha, is not merely eating good meat and drinking wine — what he calls “simchat kreiso,” the happiness of one’s gut. True joy, he argues, is when we feed converts, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor; and when we are with our children and spouses and make sure that others share in this experience as well. Thus, Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, explains that true happiness is “attained only when I forget about myself, when I lose myself, when my concern is with making others happy.”

Yet, we are constantly distracted. How possible is it to stay present? That’s where Sukkot comes in.

Every culture has its talking points. Live in Washington, D.C., and politics is the main conversation; live in Manhattan, and finance is often on peoples’ minds. After having lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade, I would say that what people talk about most here is the cost of real estate. I recently met a very successful lawyer who earns way more money than I will ever make, and he lamented that “Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve made good money, I look around me and see how much my peers make, and I say, ‘Aah, maybe I could have made more.’ ”

On Sukkot, this kind of conversation can stop — if not to end, at least to pause.

Ernest Becker, the Jewish-American anthropologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Denial of Death,” pointed out that although all creatures end up dying, only we human beings know we are going to die; and because of that knowledge, we compensate with what Becker calls “affirmation systems.” We become workaholics; we become obsessed with problem-solving and fight — however we can, in the most impotent ways — against the fear of death. We pursue the misguided belief that if we only work harder, only show more effort, only succeed more, then we will achieve exultation, joy and happiness.

Our houses are the greatest illusions of all. They make us feel protected and secure, but the sukkah’s structure forces us to stop comparing and to start being. Four walls are not even necessary; 2 1/2 will suffice. A roof is no roof if we can’t see the stars and allow for some vulnerability. And, the sukkah is not a house; it is a shoddy suggestion of a house, and a reminder that our joy and security are not driven by what we put around us but what we put ourselves into. Vulnerability and authenticity are the currency of intimacy, what need to be exchanged to achieve closeness and connection.

Sukkot, then, is the holiday of vulnerability. Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence, which puts us on the path to a true feeling of joy.

The Magic of ‘Hygge’

In the most recent rankings of the World Happiness Report — in which America is ranked 18th and Israel 11th — the top-ranked countries all have high levels of income, freedom, trust, generosity and long life expectancy; but above all else, the currency of happiness in these countries is found in personal relationships. 

As has been widely reported, Denmark is always in the top five of these rankings. Some of its citizens’ high level of happiness comes from having a top-notch education system, extensive government services and a stable government (supported by the highest tax rate in the world). But most of Denmark’s secret sauce comes from a very simple idea called “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh).

My mother’s best friend from college happens to be Danish, and I asked her what hygge is about. She explained that it basically means spending quality time with people you really care about in an easygoing environment.

“The joyfulness in Denmark is because we spend time with each other, drink tea or coffee, eat crackers with cheese, and just look at one another in the eye and talk,” she said. 

“That’s it?” I responded with bemusement.

“That’s it,” she said. “We feel good when we are present, when we make others feel our presence and that we care.”

Hygge makes good sense. It promotes trust and helps remove stress. It creates a space that puts the relationship above all else. In America, our culture of individualism — no matter how strong our Gross Domestic Product — has not translated into higher levels of personal well-being or joyfulness. 

“Unlike other holidays, on Sukkot we can’t just dip in, utter a few prayers and feel like we checked off the box. Sukkot mandates presence.”

To me, the joyfulness of Sukkot has a hygge-like essence. It’s why the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, was madly in love with the holiday, exclaiming that “there is no other mitzvah like dwelling in a sukkah during Sukkot: a person enters into it with his entire body, his clothes, his shoes.” He’s saying that Sukkot is a holiday where we have real presence, where we are enjoined to just be. It’s the presence of being, of being secure with the One above and with our most intimate friends and family. 


As Jewish Americans, we struggle with being present, which impedes our pursuit of joy. Martin Seligman, a founding leader of positive psychology, provides a very simple formula for joy — or “subjective well-being,” as he describes it. In his book “Flourish,” Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to represent what he sees as the five key elements to happiness: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. 

As I see it, Sukkot can serve as the absolute, God-given opportunity to start a life of PERMA. Here’s how it can work:

P — Positive emotions refers to the pleasant life, or feeling good; and this optimism, joy and gratitude are key to and part of the gratitude we feel on Sukkot.

E — Engagement is the presence of a flow state, or what is sometimes called “being in the zone.” Did you enjoy building the sukkah? Were you completely absorbed by what you were doing? Were you enveloped in the experience of Sukkot?

R — Relationships are everything. Be in the presence of family and friends, sharing in the intimacy of those around you. When was the last time you laughed with best friends? Invest in these relationships and honor them above all else. It’s the ultimate irony: If we selfishly want to feel good, we need to be with other people. 

M — Meaning is the awareness that something is bigger than us. It’s when we ask questions, engage in dialogue, clarify purpose and tell our story. What better time to do that than in a sukkah on Sukkot?

A — Achievement. We all just finished the High Holy Days. Now we get to sit back and enjoy.

Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said, “What is essential to life is invisible to the eye.” Using the sukkah to arrive at equanimity where we have emotional and psychological stability free from pain or any other phenomena that cause us to lose balance of mind, we get to feel the invisibility of presence — hygge, simcha!

On this Sukkot, let’s heed the advice of my Russian friend and stop forcing our kids to smile. Let’s learn, engage, ask and struggle. If we want to be joyful, be joyful. Construct it. Be with the people you love. This requires sacrifice. This requires doing.

You don’t need to be Danish to be joyful. Just be Jewish and reclaim Sukkot.

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President, Education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley: A Deep Dive Into Happiness

What is the Jewish take on happiness? It’s probably not what you think. Rabbi Mordecai Finley discusses his provocative essay in the Jewish Journal where he argues that Job was the happiest character in the Bible.

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COVER STORY: Forging Happiness

What is the Jewish Take on Happiness?

In trying to divine an answer to that question, I decided to examine what the Bible says on the subject. But first, I asked around to get a sense of what my fellow Jews thought.

“Who was the happiest character in the Bible?” I asked.
“Somebody was happy?” went a common reply.
“Define happy,” went another.

Here the problems start.

The Jewish tradition as presented in our founding texts, the Bible and the Talmud, is not a philosophic, reflective tradition. Generally speaking, Jewish scholars began to theorize on such subjects when confronted with the Greek philosophic tradition. Our greatest philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204), openly admitted his debt to Aristotle and the Greek tradition. The Jewish tradition has a lot to say about “happiness,” but for definitions, we should start with the Greeks and their interpreters. 

The Greek word most often used for what we would call happiness is eudaimonia, which literally translates as “good spiritedness” but is often interpreted as “human flourishing” or “spiritual well-being.”

There is an ongoing study of “happiness as spiritual well-being” today that one could say is flourishing. The “Pursuit of Happiness” course at Yale University, developed in response to the perceived unhappiness of the student body, contains an excellent history of how happiness has been understood across cultures and throughout history. The course, a version of which is available online, reaches back to the thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; contemplates the philosophy of Buddhism; analyzes the views of American psychologist Abraham Maslow and Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl; and probes recent research rooted in neuropsychology, among other things. It then recommends practices that will lead to happiness.  

The consensus gathered by the course is that happiness as well-being is not found in a passing moment of pleasure or gratification, but rather is derived from a sustained sense of living a life of meaning and purpose through some activity “generated from the soul.” In other words, those who profess deep well-being don’t arrive there only from good fortune or anything generated from the outside world. A person can be wealthy, loved and admired, but despite it all, be miserable. Good fortune might set the stage for deep well-being, but does not guarantee it. 

The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today.

One of the most important contemporary thinkers on happiness, psychologist and educator Martin Seligman (whose teaching is rooted in Aristotle), says happiness consists of finding your “signature strengths,” honing them and using them effectively in the service of some higher purpose. For example, a person might discover that they find their greatest meaning in life through parenting. Being a good parent is not easy; great wisdom and virtue are required. There are pleasurable and even blissful moments, but a person’s signature strength as a parent might be manifested in how they handle moments of upset, disappointment or crisis. Having a sense of purpose and knowing that you are channeling that purpose into your life and the lives of others with wisdom (knowing what to do) and virtue (being able to do it) can create a life of extraordinary well-being.  

The Hebrew term for what Seligman calls “Authentic Happiness” (one of his book titles) — is osher (rhymes with kosher). In fact, the Hebrew translation of his book is titled “Osher Amiti” — “True Osher.”

However, the word osher is rare in the Bible; much more common is the adjective ashrei. 

From the Bible’s perspective, who has achieved the attribute ashrei? Anyone familiar with Jewish liturgy knows the answer: “Ashrei yoshvei veitekha” — “Ashrei are those who dwell in Your abode.” (Psalms 84:5)

Ashrei is usually and inadequately translated as “happy,” “fortunate” or “praiseworthy.” Let’s dig into the use of the word a bit, and then venture a translation.

Let’s start with who “dwells in God’s abode.” 

“Oh God, who shall dwell in Your tents; who shall inhabit your Holy Mountain? One who walks unblemished, doing justice, speaking truth in his heart . . .”  (Psalms 15:1-2)

Who else bears the attribute?

Ashrei is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is absolved. Ashrei is the one to whom God does not ascribe iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deception.” (Psalms 32:1-2)

Ashrei is the one whose strength is in You, (Your) set paths are in his heart. For those who pass through the Valley of Thorns, He has placed a wellspring; enveloping it with the blessed pools of the first rain.” (Psalms 84:6-7)

Ashrei are those on a wholehearted path, who walk in the teachings of God. Ashrei are those who guard God’s testimonies, who seek him with all their heart.” (Psalms 119:1-2)

A couple dozen more sources could be adduced, but the constellation of biblical verses containing the word ashrei suggests that dwelling in the abode of God refers not, of course, to actually living in the courtyards of the Holy Temple but to a type of spiritual consciousness. In that state of consciousness and generated from that state of consciousness, one lives a wholehearted, righteous and moral life. In that “abode,” one seeks and lives by the moral teachings of God. In that state of consciousness, one’s inner state is not defined by the outside world. The world out there might be dark and scabrous, but deep within, one lives wholeheartedly with the Divine. 

It should be clear: Ashrei does not (except in two cases) refer to the ritual law. As we know from Isaiah Chapter 1, God is disgusted with a person who observes the Sabbath and new moons, but who tramples on the poor. Ritual observance might be true, but it might only be superficial. Ashrei refers to a person who seeks God in the heart and whose inner life is connected with the moral law. God sees through superficial lip service. Whatever one’s level of observance, the appellation ashrei refers to moral character. 

“The path [to happiness] I teach involves four elements: vision, focused intentionality or will, skill and enlightened reflection.”

The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today. Moments of gratification and joy in life are good, but authentic happiness is defined by living in a sustained way with a sense of meaning and purpose, and living out God’s moral law. Ashrei, then, refers to something like this: living consciously and actively aligned to God’s teaching. 

The biblical notion of ashrei does seem to go against the grain of some of the more exalted religious ideas of happiness, reserved for the elite. Buddhism and the religious teachings of Al-Ghazali, Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas refer to a transcendent experience of ultimate reality. The adjective ashrei seems to eschew that notion. Ashrei refers to something that is not mystical and is not reserved for the elite. Ashrei means speaking truth in the heart, being moral and being conscious of the Divine, even in moments when life is especially hard.

Ashrei is about you.

 * * * * *

With all this in mind, let’s return to my opening question: Who was the happiest character in the Bible?

The answer seems clear: Job.

Let me explain.  

First, please understand that I see the Book of Job, and the Bible in general, as literature, not a chronicle. Even the historical sections are written with the pen of literary genius. The Book of Job is such a literary gem, and was written with a purpose. The characters — God, Satan, Job and Job’s erstwhile friends — are literary creations, created to reflect something profound about the human condition. Job, in his suffering, represents every person who has suffered terribly and been told that God (or the Universe) is just, and that therefore they must have done something wrong. 

Job is introduced to us as being from the land of Utz (Advice). He is blameless and upright, reveres God and turns aside from evil — in short, ashrei. 

From reading Chapters 1 and 2, we know that Job has not sinned. The profound sorrows inflicted upon him are the result of a wager between Satan and God. Satan bets that Job is moral and reverential only to derive God’s blessings (Satan seems to have read the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs). To prove that Job will remain moral and reverential, God permits Satan to afflict Job by taking away all of God’s blessings. After suffering unspeakable catastrophes, Job endures the eloquent if misguided arguments of his friends that he must have sinned. Job argues back over some 30 chapters (see Chapter 13 for the summary). Job insists: Yes, God is just, but I have not sinned. Job finally demands that God must answer (Job 31:35). 

Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.

God finally does speak, out of a whirlwind. However, God sidesteps the question as to whether Job deserves his misfortune, and instead questions Job, saying, “Who is this who gives darkened counsel (machshikh eitzah), words without understanding?” (Job 38:2) God then fulminates about God’s own power and wisdom. After this magnificent oratory, God asks, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty give instruction? The one who reproves God must answer!” (Job 40:2)

Job admits he is deficient in knowledge (that’s his whole point): “What can I answer God? I’ll put my hand over my mouth and say no more.” Job said it once and he won’t say it again. It might have ended there, but God, is not done with Job and goes back to the awesome-power theme. God wants Job to admit that God has fearsome power — which Job does not deny. And God seems to want Job to infer from that power that he, Job, must have sinned. Job makes no inferences; he wants the truth and holds the line. 

Job finally takes his hand down from his mouth and issues his challenge. Now, what follows here are some of the most misinterpreted lines of the Bible. I want to thank Jack Miles, in his masterful book “God: A Biography,” for helping me to see these verses clearly, thereby changing the way I read the book of Job.

In Job 42:1-6, Job begins: “You know that you can do anything, and no purpose of yours can be withheld.” (The original Hebrew text says “You know,” not “I know.”) 

Job then paraphrases God’s ridicule of Job back in Chapter 38:2: “(You, God, ask:) Who is this who gives darkened counsel without understanding?” I, indeed, said things I did not understand, mysteries of which I had no knowledge.”

Job says, “Listen, and I will speak! (Job is paraphrasing himself from Chapter 13:6-7.) Job, now mimicking God from 38:3, says, “I’ll ask the questions, and you answer!” 

So Job now answers, in perhaps one of the most breathtaking verses in the Bible: “I heard about you, but now my eye has seen you. And I am disgusted, and I pity humanity.”

The Hebrew: Al ken em’as (“Therefore I am disgusted”), ve-nichamti (“and I pity”) al afar ve’efer (“upon dust and ashes,” a biblical metonym for mortal human beings).

Job has seen God, and seen through God. Job realizes that God cannot provide an answer as to the reasons for his suffering. Job realizes that, at least in this case, God is not just. Job is disgusted, perhaps for defending God so passionately. And Job pities the humanity subject to this God. 

How does God respond to this stunning and stinging rebuke? God says his wrath now burns against those who argued with Job! God tells Job’s interlocutors that they now must offer sacrifices and that Job will now pray for them, “for I will favor him because he did not join in your perversity, for you did not speak to me correctly, as did my servant Job.”

In essence, God finally admits that all those who said God was just and Job must have sinned were wrong, even perverse. The truth is extracted from God because Job, despite horrible calamity and suffering, does not “curse God and die” (as Job’s wife had recommended). Job holds the line. Job has honed resilience in the service of truth. 

There is another chapter in the Bible where God submits to a challenge — in the story of the daughters of Tzelofachad in Numbers Chapter 27. The daughters argue that the Torah’s inheritance laws are unfair. God accepts their claim and changes the law. As is written in the Sifrei (a midrash on the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy):

God says, “The Daughters of Tzelophachad did well in bringing their claim, for this is how the text is written on high. Ashrei is the one whose words are admitted by God.” (Sifrei on Numbers 27:7)

We can add to our definition of who merits the term Ashrei: one who demands of God an answer, and God answers.

Job was fearless and relentless. Job walked through the valley of death and darkness. Job traversed the Valley of Thorns. Job was indeed blameless and upright. He revered God enough to demand an answer. Job turned away from evil, but evil pursued him from an utterly random encounter between God and Satan. Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.

By any definition, ancient or modern, Job is the happiest character in the Bible. 

In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values, no matter what.

* * * * *

Yale’s Pursuit of Happiness course provides great wisdom on the nature of happiness and the practices instituted to achieve it. The Jewish tradition provides profound guidance on cultivating authentic happiness, as do other spiritual and religious traditions. So why are so many people so unhappy?

We know that internal happiness ultimately does not come from anything outside of us. Knowledge about authentic happiness won’t make you happy. Even the practices themselves won’t produce happiness, in my opinion. For example, one can act kindly but unconsciously expect gratitude. One might be committed to a full night’s rest but be deprived of it by night terrors. You may be committed to mindfulness and transcendence but have your thoughts interrupted by constant and painful distractions.

During my life, I have seen many wisdom and happiness programs come and go. I sadly predict that, five years from now, Yale’s approach will produce barely a yawn and most people will be working on the next new thing.

What is missing from all the wisdom and happiness programs that I have seen, ancient to modern, is this: attentiveness to the problems of psychological resistance and inner destructiveness, and to the deficiency of the will to fight them. 

If we look at the Book of Job as an allegory of the inner life, we all have a God and a Satan — divine and destructive elements — within us.  Sometimes our inner lives resemble the specter of Job. We aim to be upright and blameless, yet carry within us forces that can destroy us and hurt others. 

In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values,
no matter what.

As Genesis 6:5 tells us, our inner lives are continually influenced by thoughts shaped by evil. I list 10 such forces in my basic teachings in spiritual psychology: anger, resentment, unresolved grief, despair, guilt (including irrational obligation), shame, fear, anxiety, envy and destructive desire. I can list 10 more, but you get the idea.

What is it that banishes us from the house of God, makes us unable to transform the Valley of Thorns into a wellspring, makes us afraid and alone in the valley of darkness and death, stops us from living moral and upright lives, and prevents us from speaking the truth and standing up for it at all costs?

Human nature.

Solve that, and you can write a manual for happiness. 

We, the non-elites who are unable to detach from all into a life of compassion, or achieve bliss by pure knowledge of the Divine, will have to muddle through. You might aspire to the middle path between the extremes, as Aristotle and Maimonides suggest, but those extremes don’t let go so easily. 

I’ll share with you my approach to authentic happiness, to osher, eudaimonia.

The main practice — one not covered in the happiness course — is struggle, spiritual warriorship. If you don’t face and fight the destructive forces within, and if you don’t fund your decisions with prodigious amounts of will, all this work will get archived to some neglected corner of consciousness. 

The path I teach involves four elements: vision (chazon), focused intentionality or will (kavanah), specific skills (m’yumanut) and enlightened reflection (haskel).

Vision: First, one must have a clear, detailed vision of the person one wants to become. We ought to be able to list the virtues we want to acquire or strengthen, and the flaws we hope to diminish. “Wanting to be a better person” is not enough. We can yearn for authentic happiness, but we have to acknowledge in a detailed way the flaws we want to diminish. We should also have a clear and honest understanding of what our envelope for transformation is, and what that transformation would look like in relevant situations. In our tradition, the literature of Mussar (roughly, Jewish moral psychology) is a treasure house of wisdom regarding virtues to hold and flaws to release.

Intention or will: One must have a clear, strong intention or will to acquire those virtues and to struggle against forces within us that want to keep us trapped in our patterns of destructiveness. As in most difficult work, the will evaporates when we encounter resistance. We have tremendous will for so many things that might come easy to us — our work, our leisure, our political passions, controlling (or hiding from) others. The will to be a better spouse or parent, for example, often dissipates in the face of hurt, difficulty or the complexity of being morally present, in a sustained way, to another human being — or to God. Mastery of the will is required. 

Specific skills: One must acquire the specific skills for acquiring or strengthening virtues, weakening flaws and facing down the shape of destructiveness within. There are specific interventions for each of the 10 flaws listed above, but these interventions and rewiring of consciousness require daily, sedulous work. I have notified many counseling clients that if they don’t engage in a daily practice, I can’t work with them anymore. They can’t just stand there peering through the window of the house of God. They must batter down the wall impeding their entry. 

Enlightened reflection: And last, for now, we need a certain enlightened, evaluative reflection, the practical knowledge to set markers of behavioral change, inner and outer. We must be able to measure and reflect on our work, to protect us from yet another act of self-delusion. 

There is a Jewish idea of authentic happiness, and there is a path — often rocky and dark and inhabited by demons that will our demise. Find your inner Job and suffer through the pain of resistance to live a life of truth. That is the Jewish path to happiness.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

Am I as happy as Leann Rimes?

This blog is lovingly sponsored by Jose Cuervo.

I retired my “Keeping it Real” blog in 2017 after 8 long years. I wrote about pop culture, celebrity, and reality television, and it was frankly exhausting to keep up with everything going on in those worlds. My life changed for the better when I put it to bed. My schedule is no longer controlled by television, and I don’t pay much attention to celebrities. I write Keeping the Faith, and it is wonderful because I LOVE that blog. I have been chronicling my life and sharing my world view for almost a decade and it makes me happy to know my son, and one day my grandchildren, will read everything. It will provide a clear understanding of who I was, what I believed, and my world view. Keeping the Faith matters to me and while I sometimes miss Keeping it Real, not writing it does not mean I am not still keeping it real, which brings me to today’s subject, Leann Rimes.

I used to write about Leann Rimes quite often for Keeping it Real. I find Ms. Rimes to be an interesting subject to write about. Not that she is particularly interesting, but her mental health is truly fascinating. She has been in the public eye for decades and when you look at her when she first became famous, you cannot help but wish good things for her. She was ridiculously talented and painfully awkward. A sweet little girl with crazy parents you just knew were undoubtedly going to screw her over. As she grew up, and had scattered moments of success, I hoped she had come out of her childhood unscathed, but in the end she was damaged in ways that have caused her to unravel as an adult. Sadly, she was too simple to keep the madness private and instead decided to invite us all along for the ride. Bless her. Leann Rimes is brilliantly unstable.

What I find most fascinating is that after she chose to share her tragic choices with the masses, she began to get upset when people had opinions of her she did not like. I happen to think she is delusional, and since she is the one who gave me that impression, I wrote about it. Important to note I wasn’t the only one to write about her in an honest and perhaps unflattering way, but I was the one she targeted for revenge. Leann Rimes read my blogs like her life depended on it, and let me know in countless ways that she was trying to make me stop. When I think about Leann thinking she was the reason I stopped writing Keeping it Real, it makes me feel warm inside and laugh hard. She had nothing to do with why I stopped, and everything to do with why I am bringing it back today for a special bonus blog.

Recently an old blog I wrote about her resurfaced and some people read it for the first time. When I saw it going around on social media I read it too, and thought it was quite great. I am a gifted and funny writer on a bad day, but rather brilliant on a Leann Rimes day. About an hour after the old blog was retweeted, I started to get messages from Leann Rimes fans and they were not happy. By “they” of course I mean I think it is actually only one person, with several accounts, who may or may not be an employee of Ms. Rimes. Allegedly. This person went in and let me know I was a talentless and disgusting human being who was so jealous of Leann Rimes I could not function properly. Apparently I can only dream about being as happy as Leann Rimes is. It got me thinking about Leann and our history together. It led to this blog and the question of the day: Am as I happy as Leann Rimes?

It is a silly question of course, because Leann Rimes is not a happy person. She is miserable and lives her life with a constantly broken heart. She desperately wants someone to love her, and someone did, but she chose to give up everything for a man who is, as I write, not thinking about her. Not even a little bit. Allegedly. I have loved a man that much and had him not love me back, and it is crushing in a way that is hard to recover from. I can understand her staying in it rather than have it be over, but her instability is about a lot more than her marriage. Her issues stem from everyone wanting something from her. She does not matter, allegedly, to the people in her life and so perhaps the bigger question should be: Is Leann Rimes as happy as I am? I would actually love to talk to Ms. Rimes about happiness, but even thinking about talking to her might get me arrested.

I am not only happy, I am blessed. I have survived cancer, twice. Just had surgery on my neck with a remarkable outcome. I am mother to who can only be described as a truly wonderful human being. I am beautiful, funny, talented, and have the best hair! I have a great family, terrific friends, and an amazing job. I believe in love and search for it with an open heart, not an open wallet. Important to note more people read my blog than attend Ms. Rimes parking lot concerts series or buy her albums. One would think she would be smart enough to save and invest her money, rather than spend it on legal fees to try and shut me up, but I think we have established she is not a particularly bright girl. Bless her. I have nothing against Leann Rimes. I am just a writer, one she isn’t a fan of, and therefore when bored, she obsesses over me. It is kind of sweet. Bless her.

I wish only good things for Leann Rimes and my door is always open to her. I would happily chat with her so she can understand I am not the enemy and she gives me far too much power in her life. Instead of “reimagining” songs from 30 years ago, she should look forward and dream bigger for herself. Instead of wasting money on cease and desist letters, she should get a divorce lawyer and save herself. Instead of spending time in parking lots over the summer, she should spend time in a wellness retreat rediscovering her value. Instead of dreaming about being a mother, she should become one and even do it on her own. Instead of wasting her time obsessing over me, she should obsess over herself. Am I as happy as Leann Rimes? No I am not. Thank God.  Is Leann Rimes as happy as me? No, but she could be. I am counting my blessings, heading back to Keeping the Faith, and keeping it real.

Report: Israel 11th in Happiness Rankings

Photo from Public Domain Pictures.

The United Nations (U.N.) released their latest country happiness rankings on Mar. 14 and placed Israel at 11th, the same spot it’s been in for five years.

The countries in the top 10 were Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia, in that order. And given that these happiness scores are likely overstated in these Scandinavian countries, Israel’s happiness levels could be ranked even higher.

The United States was ranked 18th – a marked decline from previous years – while the Palestinian territories were placed at 104th. Iran wasn’t far behind at 106.

The report based its rankings on “GDP, social support structures, healthy lifestyles, social freedom, generosity and the absence of corruption,” among other factors, according to the Algemeiner.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Fox News host Mark Levin on Sunday Israel’s ranking was all the more impressive given that young people in the country were ranked fifth on the happiness index.

“They have a real confidence in the future, and that’s because I think they appreciate and… I know that’s what drives me and animates me: How to ensure that the Jewish state has a permanent future of security and prosperity… and peace if we can get it,” Netanyahu said. “The people of Israel I think do identify that.”

It’s not hard to see why there is such happiness in the Jewish state given the country’s thriving startup nation and respect for various freedoms that make it akin to the United States in terms of culture and values.

Read the full report here.

Sadness to Happiness

I have a friend who is feeling sad. They’re not exactly sure why, but there is real sadness. I’m not sure how to help, so all I can do is tell them I love them, and things will be okay. Sadness is tricky because it can easily turn to depression. I embrace sadness when it comes my way, knowing it will pass. That knowledge took me a long time to learn, but I know it will pass, and that gives me the strength to ride it out. My heart is heavy for those who seek the same kind of strength.

I am blessed sadness leads me to gratitude. I imagine it is exhausting when sadness leads you to darkness. I don’t want my friend to be in the dark. I want them to hold onto my hand and allow me to lead them to the light. It may be a long walk, but we will get there. There is nothing wrong with sadness. I have been dealing with sadness since a dear and close friend passed away. I miss her in ways I wasn’t expecting and find exhausting.

When my friend passed away I was sad and lost. I hung onto my son a little tighter and he led me away from sadness. He was my sunshine on a cloudy day, and I hope I can be the sunshine on my friend’s sad day. Life is good and we are blessed. Carl Jung said “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” I hope my friend can appreciate the importance of sadness in one’s happiness. They’re going to be fine and this too shall pass. I know it.

I know this person well. I know their family, job, joys, and sorrows. I know they are a wonderful human being and destined for greatness. These are things I know, and while I appreciate sadness plays an important role in our lives, it is not in charge. To my darling friend, I love you. Know it. You are going to be fine. Know it. This too shall pass. Know it. You have been my sunshine, and I will be yours. Know it. It will make it easier to keep the faith.








Three Secrets to a Long and Happy Marriage

Can anyone today really be happily married for more than 50 years?

I don’t mean the way a Hollywood producer bragged about how easily he had done it — he needed six wives to reach that longevity.

Nor do I mean the way George Burns qualified it by claiming that the only people who could possibly enjoy 50 years of wedded bliss are those who are married for at least 100.

I mean, is it really possible in today’s world that needs a different and better model every year for cars, iPads and smartphones, that has brainwashed us to accept the concept of constantly discarding what we no longer like and replacing it with a more desirable substitute — is there the possibility of a long-lasting and happy commitment to just one other person?

The question becomes all the more relevant as we live longer lives and death doesn’t impose an early ending to the bond that we entered during our youth. After decades together, husbands and wives have a choice: They can try to keep alive the romance, passion and friendship that first brought them together or they can give up on the hope of finding fulfillment with their first love and get on the “marry-go-round” until they find the elusive golden ring of contentment.

Marriage is a challenge. We can’t just take for granted that we will somehow intuitively figure out how to make a relationship between two people survive in perfect harmony. After 54 years of marriage (and counting!), I want to share with you three major insights I’ve gleaned from Jewish wisdom and tradition.

1. Happiness and hardship

The first I heard from the lips of my mother, of blessed memory. She was 95 years old at the time. Having witnessed many other marriages falter and seen how strong her relationship was with my father, I wondered about her “secret.” My parents’ lives were filled with many difficult times. On several occasions, they had to flee their residences for fear of their lives — Poland to Germany to Hungary to Switzerland. Ultimately, they came to the United States, where for many years, they faced difficult financial struggles. “How is it,” I asked my mother, “that in spite of everything you faced, you never gave in to despair and there was clearly great love between you and Dad?”

My mother reflected for a few moments. Then she said quite simply, “To tell you the truth, I never knew that we were supposed to be so happy.”

What she intuitively realized was that marriage represented far more than a mandate to have a good time and be merry. The Hollywood version advertises happiness as the goal; the Jewish view sees happiness as the added dividend of a good life with a chosen partner, a life that includes the hardships of commitment, duty and responsibility.

Helen Keller expressed a profound truth when she wrote, “Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”

The root of the Hebrew word for love, ohav, also means “I will give.” To truly love means to be concerned even more with the needs of the other than one’s self. “I love you” is to put emphasis not on what you must do to make me happy, but what I can have the opportunity to do for you — which then will make me rejoice.

Happiness is the added dividend of a good life with a chosen partner that includes the hardships of commitment, duty and responsibility.

Compare that to the kinds of contracts we are seeing people preparing today as they contemplate marriage. He’ll take out the garbage provided she’ll do the dishes. They’ll take turns making dinner. God forbid one person should do more than the other. That wouldn’t be fair. And then, of course, neither of them will ever be happy because they will always feel they’re not getting the best of the bargain.

Enter marriage with the idea that it will guarantee a perpetual smile on your face and you’re doomed to failure. Begin it with the knowledge that what marriage offers is to allow you the opportunity to share life’s challenges with the one you love, no matter how difficult and how much it will ask of you, and you will gain the gift of greatest happiness that comes from the act of giving.

So the first step to ensuring that you have a happy marriage is to remind yourself that you’re not meant to always be happy. The initial message given to a Jewish bride and groom at the completion of the ceremony is the breaking of a glass. Life must have its shattering moments. It cannot be filled with perpetual laughter. But selfless love enables us to overcome hardships together — and find the kind of joy we could never have experienced alone in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.

2. The blessing of forgetfulness

The second secret, surprisingly enough, is to discover the blessing of forgetfulness.

“Every time we have a fight,” a man confided to his friend, “my wife becomes historical.”

“Don’t you mean hysterical?” the friend questioned.

“No, I mean historical — she remembers everything I ever did wrong in the past 20 years since we’re married.”

The rabbis of the Midrash asked why God created us with the seeming flaw of forgetfulness. Couldn’t He just as well have made our minds competent enough to recall the events of our lives? No, they respond, it was not a celestial error but rather the fulfillment of a divine purpose. People aren’t perfect. We all make mistakes; that is the price we pay for our humanity. And if we blow it, we have the opportunity to repent; if we hurt another person, we can apologize and then move forward.

Forgetting is the gift from God that enables us to move on from the mistakes of the past. “I’ll never forget” is the proper response only to an act of kindness from another. “I choose not to remember” is the wise reaction to a wrong committed by someone we love in a momentary lapse of good judgment or temporary anger.

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory,” wrote Albert Schweitzer — and he might just as well have said it as recipe for a successful marriage. Unfortunately, we’re limited in how much we can do to ensure our good health. But it surely can’t be that hard to remember to forget.

Concentrate on your partner’s failings and the list will keep getting longer and longer. Learn to use the eraser on top of the pencil for your mate’s mistakes and the lead on the bottom to keep track of his or her virtues and you will always recall why you married them in the first place.

3. Compromise

And one last piece of advice to complete my suggestions.

I’ll never forget the way one woman put it when she shared with me the greatest problem she had in her marriage. “I always wanted to marry Mr. Right. I thought I found him until I realized that my husband thinks his first name is Always.”

You know what you call someone who believes they’re always right? Divorced is the most appropriate answer. Nobody is always right. And nobody is always wrong. And if you think you’re always right — you’re wrong.

Two people living together are bound to have disagreements. If they take their argument to a vote between themselves, it will always end in a tie. The solution is obvious. Right or wrong, a married couple has to learn how to compromise.

There is an amazing law about the religious symbol at the door every Jewish home. At the entrance way, we place a mezuzah to affirm the presence of God. The legal commentators have a famous dispute about the way this mezuzah should be positioned. Some say it should be vertical, others claim it needs to be horizontal.

What do we do? This is the only case in all of Jewish law in which we don’t come to a decision favoring one over the other. Instead, the final law is to place the mezuzah on a slant — neither like one opinion or the other, but rather a compromise. There’s no source for the view of a mezuzah on a slant. But it fulfills a higher truth. The truth on which a Jewish home must be built if marriages are to survive and prosper. Compromise is the key. When husband and wife can learn, even when each one of them is sure they are right, to bend a little bit and choose concession over unconditional victory, they’ll be rewarded with a prize even more valuable — a home graced with shalom, the greatest blessing of all.

It’s not easy to follow these three suggestions. Happy marriages don’t just happen. I agree with Mae West that “the most difficult years of marriage are those following the wedding.” But having celebrated our golden wedding anniversary, I think I’ve earned the right to recommend the three truths that helped get me to this point — and to reassure you that they can help you reach that milestone as well.

This piece was originally published on

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an author, lecturer and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth

It might seem crazy what I am about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune.  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on.

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It fills our world and floats in the background and many of us never know that it is there.  If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing, happiness, you are living along a single axis.  Your life is broadcast in black-and-white.

But if you understand that happiness is means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

High Holy Days: Working for happiness

Did you know that many people actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work? Although many people also find their work stressful, boring or meaningless, success doesn’t make people happy either. 

“More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around,” writes Shawn Achor, one of the designers and teachers of Harvard’s famous Happiness course, in “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Research shows that happiness is the precursor to success, not the result, and that, together with optimism, it fuel success. This is what Achor means by the competitive edge he calls the “happiness advantage.” 

But can unhappy people – or even mildly content people – become happy? If so, how? And is it possible to be happy even at work?

Achor believes so. As the CEO of Good Think Inc., a global positive-psychology consulting company, Achor uses the latest in research to give practical steps to increase happiness in our daily lives. His TED talks on the subject have garnered millions of views. 

The Texan got a taste of happiness when he unexpectedly got into Harvard after applying on a dare. He then stayed in the dorms for the next 12 years, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student and live-in resident to help students with academic and personal success. There he witnessed a pattern of students getting worried, overwhelmed, depressed and even failing. 

It was only after he went to visit a shantytown school in Soweto, South Africa, that he began to understand the answer. When he asked the kids if they like to do schoolwork,  most of the kids raised their hands. And they weren’t lying. A CEO from South Africa told him, “They see schoolwork as a privilege, one their parents did not have.”

When he returned to Harvard and saw people complaining about the very thing Soweto students saw as a privilege, “I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality.” Students who saw learning as a chore missed out on the opportunities in front of them, but those who saw Harvard as an opportunity shined.

The seven principles in “The Happiness Advantage” are not about putting on a happy face, Achor believes. It’s not about using positive thinking to pretend problems don’t exist, or that everything will always be great. It’s about harnessing our neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and rewire itself. 

“The hardest part about happiness is remembering that we can choose it,” he says. 

Achor talked about the seven principles of “The Happiness Advantage.”

Principle No. 1 The Happiness Advantage Happiness, Achor says, is “the joy we feel striving toward our potential.” This definition links positive emotion with a cognitive awareness of growth. Positive emotion without growth is pleasure, which is fleeting. Growth without positive emotion is equally short-lived and leads to depression.

“Your brain works significantly better at positive than it does when neutral or negative,” Achor says, noting that when positive, the brain has triple the creativity, 31 percent higher levels of productivity, 23 percent fewer fatigue-related symptoms, 37 percent higher levels of sales — all resulting in higher profit and lower burnout. 

Principle No. 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever Achor learned at an early age that our brain can be thought of as “single processors capable of devoting only a finite amount of resources to experiencing the world.” You can use those resources to see the world through a lens of negativity, stress, pain and uncertainty, he says, or through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience and optimism. 

“Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”

According to Yale psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski, a crucial part in work satisfaction is whether you view your work as a job (a means to a paycheck), a career (necessary to advance and succeed) or a calling (work as an end in itself contributing to a greater good). It doesn’t matter the work one does, it can always  be connected to one’s higher calling, Achor says. 

Principle No. 3 The Tetris Effect 

The brains of people who repeatedly play video games (like Tetris, where blocks have to fit geometrically) became stuck in a ‘cognitive after-image,’ which causes them to see the game wherever they go. People can also get stuck that way, especially accountants, lawyers and other professionals trained to be critical. Lawyers depose their children while accountants make spreadsheets of their wives’ faults. 

But you can create a ‘Positive Tetris Effect,’ i.e. train your brain to get stuck in a positive afterimage using happiness, gratitude and optimism. Make a list of three positive things at the end of the day, and your brain will have to scan for positive events. 

“This trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them,” he says. 

Principle No. 4 Falling Up 

The human brain has been wired to create mental maps to survive and navigate the world. After a failure, we create a map with three possible outcomes:  1. Circling in the same spot.  2.  Getting further lost (going down a more negative path).  3.  Getting to a place stronger than before.

The third way “is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it.” After repeated setbacks, some people learn helplessness and believe their actions are futile, while others have what psychologists call “adversarial growth” success after traumas or failures because of their positive mindset. 

Principle No. 5 The Zorro Circle 

Before he could become a hero, the fictional character Zorro had to learn to control his impulsiveness and master his skills one by one, first within a small circle. Often, Achor says, we feel out of control, especially when we try to tackle too many things at once. In a study of 7,400 employees published in The Lancet in 2007, people who felt they had little control over their deadlines had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease. 

In times of stress, Achor says, it’s important to identify your feelings (whether in writing or in words), find out which parts of the situation you can control, then try to accomplish one small goal. Then another, and another. 

Principle No. 6: The 20-Second Rule

Neuroplasticity tells us that we can change our brains: bad habits wire them that way as do good habits. Achor works with people to replace a negative habit with a positive one “so that the brain’s resources are being allocated appropriately” toward change, he says. 

But to form a new habit, you have to create the path of least resistance (i.e., it needs to be easy). Achor found that committing to playing the guitar every day wasn’t enough when his guitar was stored in the closet. Once he moved it outside (“lower the barrier”), he incorporated guitar playing into his daily routine. 

Principle No. 7 Social Investment

In times of stress and crisis, many people retreat into their shells and cut off communication with their friends and loved ones. But happy, successful people do the opposite. “Instead of turning inward, they actually hold tighter to their social circle,” Achor says. Forming social bonds increases Oxytocin, reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.

In the end, Achor believes we can always be happy at work by creating positive habits and sticking with them. “But if you feel like you could grow more in another job, then optimism should fuel the belief that you can make that change successfully,” he says. But if change is not possible for some reason, “making the best of the current situation only makes good sense.”

Happiness is a moral obligation

Readers who think I am preoccupied with political issues may find it interesting to learn that I lecture on the subject of happiness more than any other single topic. And, every Friday for the past 12 years, I have devoted an hour of my radio show to this subject.

I do so because I have concluded that the happy make the world better, and the unhappy make the world worse. Therefore, happiness is a moral obligation.

For the first half of my life, like most people, I regarded happiness as essentially a feeling – “I feel happy,” “I feel unhappy.” I regarded the pursuit of happiness as a selfish endeavor.

I was very wrong. Happiness — or to be more precise, a happy disposition — is actually a moral virtue. Whenever I meet an individual with a cheerful disposition, I admire that person. I have come to regard people who maintain cheerful dispositions in the same way I regard those are kind, honest, etc.

If you want to understand why happiness is a moral virtue that we are obliged to pursue, ask anyone raised by an unhappy parent — or who is married to an unhappy spouse, or who has an unhappy child — what that is like.

The unhappy — or those who act unhappy, such as the moody, the chronic complainers, the drama kings and queens — frequently ruin the lives of those around them. They cast a pall over their son or daughter’s childhood, they ruin their marriages, and they can make their parents despondent.

And that’s only the damage they do in the micro realm. In the macro realm, the unhappy often do even more damage. Those who became Nazis or communists were not happy people. Happy Muslims don’t become suicide bombers — the very fact that they want to murder and die in order to be rewarded in the afterlife is a testament to how little joy they experience in this life.

Given, then, how much damage they do, why do the moody and miserable act this way?

One reason is that they believe that they have suffered more than those who act happy.

But this is false. Most of those who walk around with a cheerful disposition have suffered at least as much as have the moody and miserable. There is rarely a correlation between suffering and disposition.

Another is that often they have been rewarded for their chronic complaining and bad moods. This typically begins in childhood, during which the moody child gets more attention than the easygoing child. And it continues into adulthood – the moody are often placated, and others frequently try to “make” the unhappy happy. So why change, when your miserable moods have only been rewarded?

People should regard bad moods in the same way they regard bad breath or bad body odor: Inflicting bad moods on others is just as obnoxious as inflicting bad breath or body odor on others. Just as we try to brush away bad breath and wash away body odor, we should try to brush and wash away bad moods.

A third reason is that we live in the Age of Feelings. Feelings have replaced standards (for example, “How do you feel about it?” has replaced “Is it right or wrong?”), and feelings have been elevated above behavior. The idea that one should not act in accord with one’s feelings, or, heaven forbid, not express one’s feelings is regarded as sinful.

Young people in particular recoil at the thought of acting contrary to how they feel. It is “inauthentic,” they say. But, of course, nice-smelling breath and bodies are also inauthentic. What is authentic about mouthwash or deodorant?

The fact is that we owe it to everyone with whom we come into contact to act in as upbeat a manner as possible. I suspect that more marriages survive a spouse’s infidelity than survive a spouse’s chronic bad moods. Indeed, regularly inflicting bad moods on a spouse should be regarded as a form of spousal abuse.

This rule applies everywhere. As one who flies hundreds of times a year, I can testify to how much more pleasant a flight is when the flight attendant is a cheerful person rather than a dour one. And in the workplace, it is simply vital. The constant good humor of my engineer, Sean McConnell, has had a measurable impact on the quality of my show.

And acting happy not only affects everyone in our lives; it affects us just as much. Our own behavior changes us. As the 12-step programs — perhaps the wisest programs in our society — put it: “Fake it till you make it.” Act happy, and you’ll be happier.

None of this suggests that we should hide our unhappy feelings from our closest friends, one of whom, hopefully, is our spouse. But it does mean that whatever we are feeling, we still need to try to be, or at least to act, happy. That is certainly the message of Judaism, from which I learned this insight. Even during the week following the death of an immediate family member, we are forbidden to mourn when Shabbat comes.

Behavior over feelings is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Taking seven steps to ‘Sukkot happiness’

But are you happy? 

No, this isn’t your mother wanting another update on your life. It’s not Dr. Phil’s provocative question through your TV/computer screen as you sit (safely) on your couch. And it isn’t someone reading you the Declaration of Independence wondering if you have really pursued this inalienable right enough.

It’s the holiday of Sukkot speaking.

The Rabbis nicknamed the harvest festival “Zman Simchateinu,” the “time of our happiness.” How, exactly, does a holiday that invites us to eat all of our meals in a small hut al fresco—often in the chilly, windy days of late fall—have to do with being happy?

“Sukkot happy” is a bit different from the kind of happy that our post-modern culture espouses. A quick search on reveals scores of books that aim to help readers embody this elusive ideal. The Buddhist variety extols striving for inner peace. Positive psychologists understand attaining happiness as a key component to mental health. And happiness in the self-help movement embraces happiness “plans” like Seven Steps to Being Happy.

The happiness that Sukkot encourages can be found when one peruses the pages of a book buried deep within the Amazon website. It is Ecclesiastes, which we read during Sukkot. The festival falls this year on the evening of Oct. 12.

Ecclesiastes wouldn’t strike you as a get-happy-quick piece of literature. It is pessimistic and cynical—just count the number of times the word “vanity” is used. Nor is it the most popular book in the Bible. In fact, the Talmud relates that the Rabbis wanted to hide the work in part because of how some statements contradict the Torah itself.

It does, however, contain deep wisdom about what gets in the way of true happiness. Ecclesiastes offers us perspective and manages our expectations. To the question “Am I rich enough?” Ecclesiastes answers, “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income, that too is futile. As his substance increases, so do those who consume it. This also is vanity.”

To the question “Am I smart/wise enough?” it comments, “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And to the issue “Am I popular enough?” Ecclesiastes responds, “A good name is better than precious oil.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is keenly aware that death will come in the end for all mortals, so it trumpets robust relationships, saying that “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun … For that alone is what you can get out of life.”

Ecclesiastes ends by offering an even greater perspective. What’s most important is to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

While all pursuits under the sun might be short-lived, the one thing that is enduring, according to Ecclesiastes, is that which exists above the sun. The book speaks about cultivating a relationship with God, but more generally it is the cultivation of relationships that lie beyond the self, which endures and leads to happiness.

According to Ecclesiastes, being in service to God—and interpreted more broadly, being of service to others—might be a key to what leads us to joy.

I think to myself, when am I really happy?  While I do love kicking back on the beach and reading a good book, I find this kind of activity relaxing—but I’m not sure it leads to deep happiness. A sense of joy surfaces when I reflect on ways that my life is in service to others, whether it is by nursing my child, teaching others, or volunteering my time and skills to an organization in the community.

For this Sukkot, consider what makes you happy. Try out this plan: Seven Steps to True Happiness: Sukkot Style.

* Build a sukkah. Even if you don’t have a backyard or garden, ask about the roof of your building. Or find someone who has one and have a meal there. Does the food taste any different to you outside? How does eating in a temporary structure make you appreciate the permanence of your home?  What other new perspectives do you gain?

* Invite wisdom into your sukkah. In the spirit of “ushpizin,” inviting guests into your sukkah, invite the wisdom of friends and relatives (living or dead) who cannot join you this Sukkot. Write down a saying or phrase from them that inspires you and turn it into a piece that can decorate your sukkah, or share it aloud at your next meal.

* Invite a guest to your table. In the spirit of repairing relationships—something we focus on greatly during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—make time to share a meal together with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile or from whom you have grown distant.

* Enjoy the harvest. Wave the lulav and etrog (especially fun to do with kids!), symbols of the fall harvest. Learn about what produce is harvested in your area and even go to a farm stand or a farm. Speak to the farmers and ask them about when they are the most “happy” in the work they do.

* Read the book of Ecclesiastes. Pick one or two phrases that strike you and consider how they might relate to your own life.

* Learn about homelessness in your community. While a sukkah is a makeshift dwelling place that will last seven days for us, there are others in our community, without homes, who live outdoors in makeshift dwellings year round.

* Help others. Think about a way that you can serve one person inside your intimate circle and one person outside of it, including a stranger.

The holiday of Sukkot falls immediately after the long process of introspection we engage in during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We move from the conceptual world of fasting and prayer to the practical one of harvested fruits and sukkah building. We have time to think about how to live a life of service—to God, Torah, friends, family and our communities).

If there is a “season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven,” then let this season be one of genuine rejoicing.

Israel ranks seventh in happiness level, poll finds

Israel ranked seventh worldwide in the happiness level of its residents, according to a survey conducted by the Gallup Institute.

Some 63 percent of Israelis are satisfied with their lives, Gallup’s global wellbeing surveys in 2010 found. Israel was ranked higher than the United States, which came in 12th place—59 percent of Americans said they were thriving, the indicator of happiness. Thirty-four percent of Israelis said they were struggling and 2 percent said they were suffering, according to the survey.

New Zealand also ranked seventh among the 124 countries surveyed. Denmark ranked first with 73 percent of respondents saying they were thriving.

Among the countries where fewer than 25 percent of citizens said they were thriving were Russia, China and Lebanon.

Some 14 percent of the residents of what the survey calls the “Palestinian territories” said they were thriving, according to the survey.

Results were based on face-to-face and telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 adults per country, aged 15 and older, conducted in 2010.

Settle down

When it comes to dating, even Tobey Maguire is interested in the concept of settling.

Now, I have no idea about Spidey’s love life — last I heard he was with Lois Lane, wait, no, that’s Superman, not Spider-Man, and this just in — the real Maguire is married and expecting his second child.

But I don’t want to talk about his personal life, I want to talk about his professional one.

Maguire has just signed on to develop a feature film from essayist and occasional Jewish Journal columnist Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

In a 5,500-word piece published in March in the Atlantic Monthly, Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother who chose to have a baby on her own asked a poignant question: “Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Gottlieb quickly answers her own question:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

Gottlieb’s stance caused quite a brouhaha on the blogosphere (read: rantosphere), where people called her everything from “immature” to “desperate” to “tragic” to “crazy,” labeling her a narcissist, anti-feminist, crackpot journalist. She has also been told “she needs a shrink, pronto.”

Gottlieb tells me she was a bit taken aback by the harsh reaction, but said that in addition to the 700 letters of support she also received, a number of rabbis have used her piece in their sermons. (She even spoke last month at Sinai Temple.)

I’m not surprised by the rabbis’ support. Gottlieb’s message is something I’ve heard many, many times before. Since the beginning of my illustrious dating career at age 19 (for marriage purposes!), rabbis, educators, teachers and other religious married people have been telling me the same thing: Find someone with shared values, someone you respect, someone you can build a life with. A good husband, a good father, a good partner.

Nothing new here.

In traditional Jewish communities, the notion of “Hollywood Love,” of “Love at First Sight,” of a “Love of Everlasting Passion,” has long been viewed as a myth. The problem in those communities is not whether or not to believe Hollywood love myth, it’s whether to believe love and attraction should play any part at all in the choice of a mate.

That was the message I got, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, I went to dozens of weddings (to this day, the words “bridal shower” make me break out in hives). The ceremonies were solemn and the parties leibadik (festive), and the “salmon-chicken-or-prime rib” menus were delectable, if indiscernible, but to me it seemed like something essential was lacking: love. Back then, in my world, it seemed people settled too easily. They married — young — to have a partner, to not be alone, to fit into the community, to have kids, to be part of what Gottlieb calls “a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business.”

If one could chart my own “why isn’t she married?” trajectory (and believe me, there are many who do) it might be the result of this kind of advice: I’ve seen too many loveless marriages hastily entered into for anything but love.

Now, of course, Gottlieb isn’t advocating marrying a man who repulses you or puts you to sleep every time he answers the question, “How was your day, dear?”

But it would seem that once you enter the slippery slope of settling, it would be hard to know when to stop. What exactly is the right thing to compromise on? If he is a nice guy, but he goes on and on at dinner parties until you hope someone will drop a plate of hot soup on his lap, is that settling?

See, the other side of the “too picky” see-saw is the “not selective enough” category. Most (married) people who watch their friends/children/congregants date are not familiar with this second category until it’s too late. For example, if a single person regales a married person about her date, saying, “he made me pick up the tab and then just hopped in a cab home!” the married friend will reply, “Well, maybe he’s just low on cash this week and got an emergency call, and you should really give him another chance.”

No, the message to Jewish singles is and always has been Gottlieb’s message: Why can’t you all just settle down?

Now that I’m in my 30s, I wonder if there is something in between musical chairs (grabbing the last man standing) and “The Notebook” (holding out for perfection).

And I suppose that is the beauty of a different kind of Judaism, one that mingles with the mainstream world — even Hollywood, believe it or not. Yes, there should be sparks and chemistry and love and happiness and laughter — together with shared values, common goals and mutual interests.

Because if I’ve learned anything from 15 years (!!!) of dating, it’s that whether you run into a marriage with someone you don’t love, or you hold out for a hero who never comes, either way, you’ll end up all alone.

Leave the house

There’s nothing more smug and insidious than a girl who has finally fallen in love and thinks she now has all the answers. She can save you from your sad, pathetic, damaged love life and cure you of your nasty man-repellant habits. No matter what condescending tip she’s giving you, it always drips with the self-satisfied knowledge that the spinster bullet she so artfully dodged is headed straight for you.

I hate that girl.

I can’t turn into her, and maybe that’s why I haven’t written for the past nine months, since I met and fell in love with the first man I’ve ever been sure about. When it finally happened, it felt much more like dumb luck than brilliant man maneuvering. More dice than poker. I can’t be gloating all the way to the altar because the fact is, I’m just a girl who left the house one Saturday night to have dinner with her girlfriends, saw a cute guy across the room and hit the jackpot.

The only magical insight I can share with you has to do with the leaving the house part. Even Eli Manning can’t throw a touchdown if he doesn’t break out of the huddle. That’s really all I can tell you for sure.

There’s always been a special place in my grudge greenhouse for those who peddle the idea that finding love is a skill that can be graphed, taught and sold. Books about love seem like a whole lot of mess to me, written largely by groovy grifters.

Take for example author John Gray — you know, the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” guy? The guy who has sold more than 30 million books doling out relationship advice? Well, he married fellow self-help writer Barbara De Angelis, who penned “Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know.”

Between the two of them, you have to imagine this was the most blissful, evolved marriage ever. Too bad they’re divorced. Yet somehow, both still hawk their wares. A special hats off to Gray for combining two brilliant swindles in his latest work, “The Mars & Venus Diet & Exercise Solution.” I couldn’t make up tripe like that.

So, when I ask myself how I finally stopped screwing up my love life, the only answer that comes to mind is the same one famously used by one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters to explain how he went bankrupt: “Two ways, first gradually then suddenly.”

The gradual part was the usual therapy in Tarzana with a nice lady who lets me joke about the therapist next door, Dr. Harsher. Seriously, that’s his name. The suddenly part was meeting a guy who is so boundlessly good-natured and patient that he makes me want to bake him cakes and write syrupy e-mails. For the most part, I stopped being a subpar girlfriend and self-involved jerk, first gradually then suddenly.

In any case, I could have had all of the personal epiphanies in the world and still turned up snake eyes. Some of the most together people I know are alone, and some of the real doozies are paired up. It really does come down mainly to luck. Luck and leaving the house.

Aside from being self-conscious that I would come across unctuous and all-knowing about falling in love, there’s another reason that for the first time in 10 years I haven’t written a darn thing.

I’m … happy? And happy people can be a bit dull, or at least that’s the notion that’s been dogging me. I introduced this concept out in Tarzana.

My Therapist: “Not all happy people are boring.”

Me: “Name one happy person who isn’t boring.”

My Therapist: “The Dalai Lama.”

Me: “Really? Have you read ‘The Art of Happiness?'”

My Therapist: “You got me there.”

Perhaps she should have suggested I set up a session with Dr. Harsher.

Since falling in love and losing what I perceive to be my “edge,” I sometimes worry about being one quaint, self-deprecating tale away from being Erma Bombeck, and I loved Erma, but you know what I mean.

Oddly enough, the answer came from a co-worker. He told me that I was so deeply troubled that even if one part of my life was gelling, the nuttiness runs deep. He said I was like Mike Tyson, I wouldn’t run out of crazy. And that was comforting, and the fact that it was a salve proved it true. I’ve got a backup generator of crazy in case the mishegoss goes out.

So, hopefully, despite the fact that I’m not suffocatingly lonely or in a relationship laced with toxic levels of resentment, I still have a fertile patch of pain from which insights can grow, like that brilliant one I had earlier about leaving the house. What a relief.

Teresa Strasser is co-host of “The Adam Carolla Show,” on KLSX-FM. Three days after writing this column, she got engaged. She is very happy — hopefully, not too happy. Her book, “101 Ways to Win a Coin Toss,” will be out this fall.

Serenity now — inside and out


Yes, take a breath.

“One, long deliberate breath that you feel from the very beginning of it until the end of it. Try it, really. You can do it with your eyes open. You can do it while reading these instructions. Do you notice that you can feel your body, and especially your chest expanding and relaxing to accommodate the air flowing in and out, without stopping reading?”

This is the advice of Sylvia Boorstein in her new book, “Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life” (Ballantine Books). It’s the latest contribution to the ever-popular and growing happiness library — books by religious leaders, self-help gurus, psychologists and doctors — on how to live a more fulfilling life.

Every book seems to have its own prescription for the ways to lead a happier life, and for Boorstein — a practicing psychotherapist, the co-founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre and author of the previous “Pay Attention for Goodness Sake,” “It’s Easier than You Think,” and “Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There!” — it’s Buddhism.

“Inside Job,” like most happiness guides, advises practicing meditation, expressing gratitude and mindfulness as ways to happier life, but for Boorstein, it’s the central tenet. Her book focuses on three Buddhist teachings to focus the mind and lead readers away from confusion, anger and anxiety into calmness and clarity:

* Wise Effort — when you intentionally choose to rid your mind of painful thoughts so that you can focus on positive thoughts which generates positive feelings;

* Wise Mindfulness — when you watch your mind’s reactions to the events around it, thereby restoring balance, and

* Wise Concentration — when you focus on one thing (like breathing) to establish composure.

Unlike many of the recent offerings on happiness, which advise avoiding unpleasant situations or people so as not to bring yourself down, Boorstein’s main focus, through telling stories that happened to her and at her seminars, is compassion and connectedness. Indifference, pity, envy and jealousy are all “near-enemies” of this, but if you are compassionate to yourself and to the world around you, you can deal with any problems that come your way. In any case, she said, “You never really know what the next minute is going to bring, so living fully in this moment is the only constantly reappearing option for happiness.”

Dr. Sylvia Boorstein will be speaking on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills and on Friday, Dec. 14, at Kehilat Israel in the Palisades.

Hindu widows, remembering Marcy, Conservatives are dishy, Oh! Happy Day!

Our Jewish Spinsters

Rob Eshman’s piece, “Our Hindu Widows” is literally unbelievable (Aug. 10). I am a marriage-minded 52-year-old SJM. I have never been married and want to find my match and start a family. The only really practical advice I have ever heard is “Buy a mansion in Potomac, Md!” It is incredibly difficult to find a marriage-minded SJF young enough to have children; who is attractive, relocatable and willing to marry a nice, but not perfect, man.

I am healthy, fit, reasonably cute, well-educated, professionally successful, prosperous, considerate, great with kids, come from a well-respected family and am a dues-paying member of two Orthodox congregations. I am picky, but less so than most SJFs.

Paul Ackman
Richmond, Va.

A New Dish

The Industrial Revolution brought with it unprecedented societal changes (“Conservatives’ New Dish,” Sept. 21). Leaders of the Conservative movement, fearing that the faithful might be unable to fulfill their religious obligations, chose to relax some rules in response to the new social order. Judaism, they reasoned, is a living religion, and what better way to prove it than to adjust it to the demands of modern life?

For example, during the past century, limited driving has been permitted on Shabbat, the restrictions of kashrut have been relaxed and women have been invited to fully participate on the bimah. Much to the chagrin of our leaders, these changes have resulted in unintended consequences.

Those who enjoy the liberalization, and especially their progeny, find comfort in the Reform Movement, where halacha is less of an issue. On the other hand, those wishing to stay more closely aligned with our customs and rituals have discovered Modern Orthodoxy. They seemingly abide by our ancient laws, while coexisting successfully in the modern business world.

There are two groups for whom the Conservative movement is still a big draw. The first are observant women who want equity on the bimah. The second are homosexuals, who crave adherence to halacha. Although Conservative Judaism still does not fully embrace this demographic group, the only question is when, not if, the rules will be changed.

Whether these two groups, and those of us who concur with them, are adequate to sustain the Conservative movement, remains to be seen. For now, as David Suissa notes, we will continue to engage in “more debate.”

Leonard Solomon
Los Angeles

Oh Happy Day!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful, and meaningful article (“Can Happiness Be Taught?” Sept. 14).

I hope you receive lots and lots of letters from totally ordinary people like me who are just plain happy and grateful just about all of the time. It’s true … I’ve “had it easy” relatively speaking. Thank God no child of mine has been stricken with some dreaded disease. I’ve managed to become 91 years old without needing to deal with an unusual personal catastrophe. Of course, I’ve had my share of the so-called “ups and downs,”… but that’s what being alive is all about. Managing the downs and appreciating the ups (plus the times in between).

And being glad that the downs have been manageable.

Alyse Laemmle
Hermosa Beach

Temple Mount
Please continue your coverage of the desecration of Har-Habayit, the Temple Mount, by the Muslim Waqf (“No One Cares About Ravaging of Temple Mount,” Sept. 21).

The question remains: what will it take for the Jewish people to wake up and stand up for this holy piece of land that was stolen by the Muslims? It is the ultimate chutzpah that they would steal a sacred place, build a shrine and then desecrate the foundation.

J. Sand
Los Angeles

Who Shall Die

The piece “Who Shall Die” about Marcy Asher was very moving (Sept. 14). This woman was unknown to me but it showed how we usually never know what the people we meet in our daily life are going through and therefore we need to make allowances for others. May her family and friends be comforted.

Bob Kirk
Los Angeles

As I’m not Jewish nor a denizen of California, I have not to date read your publication. While waiting at the nail salon this morning I picked it up and read with interest Ms. Asher’s remembrance. I must say that it was rather surprising to read the underlying theme and apparent reason for the article was a forum for the gentleman to boast of his lascivious conquest of a young lady.

Odd to take a young woman who was schizophrenic and use that to his own sexual advantage. One often thinks the Jewish people have higher ideals. Apparent misconception since this publication is titled The Jewish Journal.

Quite surprising, this article. Quite sad, the editor. A tragedy for this girl to be remembered with prurience.

Wendy Lofts-Millington
New York, N.Y.

UC Irvine

In your article about the UC Irvine fiasco (“Chemerinsky Affair Reflects UCI-Jewish Conflicts,” Sept. 21), you noted the ZOA’s federal civil rights complaint on behalf of Jewish students there, which alleges the university’s unlawful failure to respond to anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on the campus.

Your readers should also know that the complaint triggered a government investigation into the university’s conduct, which is still ongoing. Also, while noting that UC Irvine’s chancellor has been criticized for failing to respond effectively to the harassment of Jewish students, you seemingly suggest that he is somehow redeemed by having condemned the British boycott of Israeli universities. The chancellor’s protest is commendable, but where has he been when it comes to speaking out against anti-Semitism on his own campus? UC Irvine routinely hosts events at which speakers inaccurately call Israel an apartheid state, blame “the Zionist Jews” for the Sept. 11 terror attacks and other problems in the world, and accuse “the Zionist Jews” of bullying, conspiratorial conduct, and trickery. It is this kind of hateful bigotry that leads to a British academic boycott, and Chancellor Drake should stop remaining silent and start clearly and forcefully condemning it.

Susan B. Tuchman
Center for Law and Justice
Zionist Organization of America

Pro-Israel Lobby

I am totally bemused by the Walt-Mearsheimer, Jewish/Israeli lobby, brouhaha.

10 books about happiness

1. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

2. “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin Seligman (Free Press, 2004).

3. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, 1999).

4. “The Psychology of Happiness” by Michael Argyle (Routeledge, 2001; first edition, 1987)

5. “The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering Pathways to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy” by David G Myers (Quill, 1992)

6. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage Books, 2005)

7. “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,” by Jennifer Michael (Hecht Harper, 2007).

8. “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” by Dennis Prager (Harper Paperbacks, 1999).

9. “Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Joyous Practice” by Rabbi David Aaron (Trumpeter Books, 2007).

10. “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be” by Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Jewish Lights, 2007).

Can happiness be taught?

Are you happy?

No, seriously.

Are. You. Happy?

You can’t answer that question, can you? You know what the first two words mean, but you’re not exactly sure what that third word is, even though you use it all the time. “This makes me happy”; “She seems happy”; “Happy Birthday”; “There! Are you [un]happy now?”

And does “Are you happy?” mean are you happy right in this very moment that you are reading this sentence? Or, happy with your entire life? Anyway, what does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to experience constant pleasure? Bouts of joy? Moments of ecstasy? Does it mean to suffer no pain? Never be sad? Never struggle with challenges? Whatever it is, how does one get happy?

It’s a High Holy Days challenge if ever there were one, since if we all lived happier lives, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

So. Are you happy? Or are all these questions making you miserable?

Happiness. It’s the new black.

Actually, the quest is not new. From Adam to Aristotle, Tony Robbins to Tony Soprano, from the Bible to the best-seller lists, philosophers, religious leaders, theologians, politicians — all have dealt in one way or another with what it takes to live a happy life. America, in fact, is the only nation founded upon this: The pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right.

And pursue it we do, with vigor.

Now more than ever before, it seems. If the ’60s were about “Freedom,” the ’70s about “Me,” the ’80s about “Money,” the ’90s about “Power,” in the new millennium we’re recognizing something essential: None of the above, by themselves, can bring about happiness.

Think about it: Anything anyone has ever wanted in life — to be free, to be king, to be rich, to be slim, to be loved — can be boiled down to “one thing,” to quote Curly in “City Slickers”: To be happy.

And never before has the word happiness appeared in so many popular book titles. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” by Tal Ben-Shahar; “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham J. Twerski; and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, upon which the Will Smith movie is based, to name a few.

Even the world of psychology — which has long studied human suffering — has joined the fray. With the recent founding of “positive psychology,” a new branch devoted to applying empirical methods to studying and creating happiness, it seems everyone — from rabbis to doctors to teachers to coaches — is involved in the quest once dominated by self-help gurus.

But what does it mean to be happy? And how do we get there?

Here is some of what a wide range of writers, psychologists, rabbis and happiness gurus have to say on the subject:

What is happiness?

“Most people have a very fragmented idea of what happiness is,” said Dr. John Drimmer, who co-founded of The Positive Psychology Center of California last year, which offers individual and group psychotherapy, professional training and corporate consulting to help people live lives of purpose and joy and fulfillment. Drimmer said Americans equate happiness with self-esteem — but that’s only a part of it; self-esteem alone doesn’t lead to happiness.

“Let’s say you put all your emphasis into developing oneself. Ultimately, the truth is we’re all going to die,” he said, adding, “Sorry to sound like an existential Jew.”

Instead of happiness, he said, “Well-being is a better word. That’s what I think we can expect, and want, out of life.”

Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar puts it quite simply: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes. In a phone conversation from his home in Israel — he will commute to Boston to continue to teach his positive psychology class next semester — Ben-Shahar said that we tend to confuse pleasure with happiness.

“Pleasure is an important component, but not the only one … we also need our behavior to be personally meaningful, to be personally significant,” Ben-Shahar said.

True happiness lies somewhere between the hedonist’s indulgent lifestyle (live only for today) and the religious ascetic’s lifestyle (live only for the world to come). The Hebrew word for happiness is osher.

“In Hebrew osher means approved — I live a life of which I approve, an authentic life,” Ben-Shahar said.

“Authentic Happiness” is the name of another book, this one by Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 founded the field of positive psychology, which “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Seligman’s research, the center’s Web site says, “has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” (At, you can find tests to take using positive psychology.)

One of the best scientific explanations of what it feels like to be happy comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the “Flow” series that began with the 1990 “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)”: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

These moments of flow, or optimal experience, can occur while working; socializing; exercising; reading; being with family, friends, lovers or alone (but probably not while watching TV, which, according to his scientific monitoring, actually produces lower levels of flow). Here’s how he breaks down the phenomenology of enjoyment:

  • We take on tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task has clear goals and immediate feedback.
  • We have a deep and effortless involvement and are separated from everyday worries;
  • We have a sense of control over our actions during the experience.
  • Our concern for self disappears, but emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Our sense of time is altered during the experience.

But why are we so concerned with happiness at this particular time — are we so very unhappy now?

Some people would argue that we are not any more unhappy than our grandparents were.

“Nothing changes, because the human condition is eternal,” said Dennis Prager, radio host and author of “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” (Harper Perennial, 1999). “If you would have asked your grandmother if she was happy, she would have looked askance at your question.”

He said her response might have been, “If I had lunch and are my kids well,” then that’s happiness.

Others might say that we think about these questions only because we have the time and leisure now to think about them.

“In a way, there’s never been a time or place in the history of the world in which you have so many people who didn’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs,” Drimmer said. If you’re running for your life, trying to feed your family, evade natural disasters or political terrors, you might not have the wherewithal to ponder, “Am I happy?”

But now — for better or for worse — we do.

And perhaps it used to be that people — people like our grandparents, and their grandparents — thought that if they just had this one thing (food, freedom, wealth, kids, security, their daughter marrying a doctor) then they would be happy.

“Traditionally, people looked for it in more money and prestige, but they [now] realize it hasn’t worked,” Ben-Shahar said.

In other words, some of us have gotten everything we ever wanted, and we are still not happy.

“Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor are the three biggies that will take you out of your life,” Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a post-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, said, quoting “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:28). “They will destroy your life. I counsel people all the time who have spent so much time pursuing things that don’t make them happy, and they don’t understand why they’re not happy. We spend our whole lives thinking that this next thing will make us happy — whatever the next thing is — it’s very easy for us to fall into that pattern.”

Many rabbis and spiritual leaders believe that unhappiness is the modern plague because we are so disconnected from religion.

“When a man has a path, he is happy,” said Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, author and speaker from the RazOt, The Lev Eliyahu Institute, who recently lectured on joy at The Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. “There is no happiness like the closing off of doubt.”

“To be truly happy, we need to live as spiritual beings,” writes Twerski, a doctor and rabbi, in “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Being the Best You Can Be.”
He’s not talking about being religious.

“Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion, by being the best person he or she can be,” he said.

Even scientists agree that our general disconnect from religion might be what has gotten us to this search for happiness, because religion and religious institutions provide many of the essential ingredients needed to be happy: interconnectedness, community, family, meaning, uplifting experiences, a sense of purpose. But many scientists, who pride themselves on intellectual rigor, say the days of formalized religion are over, despite those benefits.

“The shields that have worked in the past — the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions and habits instilled by social classes used to profit — are no longer effective for [the] increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Today it is more difficult to accept their world view as definitive. The forms in which religions have presented their truths — myths, revelations, holy texts — no longer compels life in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truth may have remained unchanged,” he said.

Maybe a new, intellectually satisfying religion will arise, he said, but “in the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

Others see our era in more dire terms: It could be, they argue, that ours is an apocalyptic time. “We are on the verge of the messianic era,” said Arjang Zendehdel, head of Dreamality Education & Coaching a center that uses 14 different disciplines, including positive psychology, to support people in discovering their full potential. Zen-dehdel, who was also a host of a weekly radio show in English and Farsi, said the messianic era means intense divine consciousness and awareness.

“People are becoming more and more thirsty, and they’re not satisfied with the way things were,” Zendehdel said.

Is it possible to become happy?

First, scholars in the field argue, happiness is not a static or definitive state of being, it’s actually a process. The question, Ben-Shahar writes, should not be “Am I happy?” but “How can I be happier?”

“The question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point,” Ben-Shahar writes. “We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire.”

And that is the whole point of psychology — or at least positive psychology.

“It’s the empirical study of how people can live rich, rewarding, wonderful lives,” Drimmer said. “Not just individually. How can we create families that are like that and even countries that are like that?”

It’s true that there are some genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with better temperaments, better parents, better living conditions, better lives. But almost all the happiness research has shown that happiness has little to do with outside conditions.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Mass Market Paperback, 1997), catalogued Holocaust survivors who found meaning in their lives, and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn was at times in “flow” in prison. Twerski found conjoined twins who didn’t want to separate because they were happy. On the other hand, every day we read about celebrities — who would seem to have reached the epitome of what we’re striving for — who nevertheless are on drugs, in rehab or on the verge of suicide.

“Many people assume that money is the key to greater happiness. In fact for most people, money has a very small effect on happiness, because their basic needs are satisfied already, and there are much more important causes of happiness,” writes Michael Argyle in “The Psychology of Happiness” (Routledge, 2002).

“Ultimately, happiness is not based on what we have,” Zendehdel said in an interview. “Ultimately, happiness comes from within.”

Levy said she pays close attention to the Torah verse, “V’samachta b’chagecha” (and you shall be happy on your holidays).

“Can you command joy? If you can command it, it must be that joy is an option, that it’s within your strengths to achieve it,” she said. “There’s an aspect to happiness that’s in our power, ‘Sameich Bechelko,’ [Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot].”

Prager takes it one step further. Not only is attaining happiness possible, it is a person’s duty to be happy.

“We’re morally obligated to act as happy as possible,” he said. “I have increasingly less patience for the chronically unhappy. Because almost everybody alive has a reason to be unhappy.”

How can we become happier?

Even though most happiness guides say that they cannot simply “give recipes for how to be happy” (“Flow”), most offer steps toward a well-lived life.

Twerski offers 10: Be humble, compassionate, patient, open to change, choose wisely, make the most of all situations, improve yourself, have perspective, purpose and search for truth.

Prager offers five: Express gratitude, let go of our images, act happy, don’t rely on children for your happiness and practice self-control.

Ben-Shahar offers six: Accept emotion, engage in enjoyable and pleasurable activities, have perspective, simplify, take care of your body and express gratitude.

Zendehdel offers five: Gratitude, perspective, faith that everything happens for the good, spirituality and growth.

All of the lists stress gratitude and perspective, which brings to mind the parable of rabbi Nachum Gam Zu, who always said, despite his misfortune, “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” — it’s all for the best.

To acquire these traits, though, is not as easy as reading a book, taking a class, making a resolution. They must be practiced.

For example, Drimmer explained in an interview three exercises he has his UCLA medical students do.

  • For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy.
    “And what we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,” Drimmer said. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

  • For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful.
    “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem — they are all words about connection and caring and unity.

  • For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list, and then pick the most common occurrences and see if they can use those strengths the next day.
    Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer exercises, but he does advise people to become involved in auto-telic pursuits: “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

Which is what they say about mitzvot, or positive commandments: they are a reward in themselves.

So where does Judaism fit into this? Does God want us to be happy? Can a religious person be happy?

There has long been a debate as to whether it is an actual mitzvah to be happy. “Mitzvah Gedolah Lehiyot B’simcha,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, meaning, it’s a great mitzvah to be happy.

But many debate whether this is a positive commandment in itself, as it comes from the Psalms, “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha” (worship God with joy). Some say the words simply mean one should be happy when performing a mitzvah, especially since being happy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

But Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the early Chasidic leaders, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.”

Some say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but the Torah has many different words for happiness. “Simcha” is the generic word for happiness; “aliz” means joy.

According to Glazerson, who wrote “Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights Into the Hebrew Language” (Feldheim, 1991), many of the words for happiness kabbalistically refer to a certain type of happiness: “Sasson is a sudden unexpected happiness, gila is the happiness of discovery, rina is a refreshing happiness, ditza is a sublime joy, chedva is the happiness of togetherness and tzahala is dancing and rejoicing.”

Hebrew’s Osher, for happiness, has the same root as the Hebrew word for head, rosh. Simcha has the same letters as thought, or machshava. “There is no happiness without the head. It’s all in a person’s mind,” Glazerson said. “If the head is straight, you will be happy.”

In fact, the advent of the Chasidic movement in the 17th century sought to bring a mystic joy — with singing, dancing and prayer — a reaction to what they saw as an overly ritualistic, intellectual Judaism among those who came to be known as “mitnagdim,” or opponents.

The popularity of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, again, has sought to bring that primal joy of song back to Judaism.

Joy is “what Judaism is all about,” Glazerson said. “How can a person be unhappy if he truly believes in God?”

In “Living a Joyous Life: the True Spirit of Joyous Practice” (Trumpeter Books, 2007), Rabbi David Aaron talks about a prediction from the Zohar mystical text: “It said there will come a time when the Jews will relate to Jewish tradition like cows eating grass, and that this generation will bring ruin upon itself.”

“The Talmud said that when people accept the Torah with joy and happiness, these feelings are guaranteed to be long lasting,” he added. “But when people accept the Torah with anger or feelings of coercion, though they may observe its commandments for a while, eventually they reject them and everything breaks down.”

It’s easy to lose the point in whatever we are doing, Levy said.

“It’s easy to practice a Judaism that’s rigid, it’s also easy to practice in a way that’s mindless, to just get out of bed and not be aware of anything. It’s easy to lose all of it,” she said. “The more mindless we are, the more we act out of fear, or the more we don’t learn that we can’t just show up and expect something to happen. The more passive we are as Jews, the less we’re going to get out of it.”

The question of how to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant is a different story, but everyone agrees that it must be practiced voluntarily and with … happiness.

“For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning — leading a moral life — necessitates sacrifice,” Ben-Shahar writes. “Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would not be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, puts meaning and pleasure against each other.”

Most theologians and scientists agree that religion does provide a structure and opportunity for happiness.

“Religion can provide standards of right and wrong that are not altered by expedience. While it is true that people may distort religion for their own needs, religion can still provide guidelines that help us know how to be more considerate, more compassionate, more spiritual,” Twerski writes.

Both Prager and Ben-Shahar were raised in Orthodox homes and still ascribe to many of the strictures, although they do not call themselves Orthodox.

“Many of the habits that I was taught, or that I practiced as a child, when I was Orthodox, I still keep today,” Ben-Shahar said. “I value them today on a much more conscious level than I did then.”

“The best advertisement for religiosity is a happy religious person; the worst is an unhappy one,” Prager said. “So I make this appeal to religious Jews who walk around unhappy: Either walk around happy, or stop being religious.”

But can an atheist achieve happiness? (Duh!)

Prager doesn’t think so: “If you believe that there is no God, there is no ultimate justice, then everything is pointless. I don’t understand how you can be happy with those beliefs. I just don’t understand it,” he said. But he’s in the minority.

Every person can acquire a spiritual side that is necessary to achieve a state of happiness.

“You don’t have to believe in God or be a religious person to be appreciative or to have great things in your life,” Levy said. “Judaism is just one way to happiness, not the way.” What makes a spiritual person is an “expansive” outlook, she said. “It’s the ability to be aware of your surroundings, it’s the ability to find some kind of connection, to feel connected — whether you’re a person of faith or not.”

For believers and nonbelievers alike, happiness should be a priority. Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Ben-Shahar said, “If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others.”

Are we there yet?

Since happiness is not a destination but a lifelong process, it is not possible to achieve Curly’s “One Thing” and then rest on our laurels forever. “I think it’s in our DNA to want more,” Zendehdel said.

Or, to quote Al Pacino’s character in “The Scent of a Woman”: “The day we stop lookin’, Charlie, is the day we die.”

Reb Shlomo Carlebach teaches and sings about the mitzvah of joy in this streaming MP3 audio file.

Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Professional Leaders Project Think Tank on Oct. 29.

12 thoughts on happiness for the 10 Days of Awe

“It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.”
— Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

1. Happiness is not always easy: You work out to be fit, and you have to work to be happy. It’s also easier to be unhappy (stuck) than happy.

2. Happiness is a choice: Anyone, from prisoners to paraplegics, can become happy. It’s a state of mind, having a sense of mastery over your life.

3. Happiness has little to do with external factors: Money, power and fame rarely bring happiness. If you choose your goals based on internal values, not external, they can bring you happiness.

4. Happiness does not come from doing nothing: We all have control of our leisure time. Use it to engage in challenging things you love: gardening, creating, exercising, being with loved ones. Sloth usually brings unhappiness.

5. Happiness doesn’t mean avoidance of pain: Everyone in life will have pain. But, to quote the Dalai Lama, don’t add suffering to the pain.

6. Perspective is the key to happiness: Rabbi Nachman Gamzu said, “Gam zu l’tovah: “This is all for the best.” In the game of life, if you learn life lessons from painful situations, you get to move one step further.

7. Practice gratitude: It’s hard to be thankful and unhappy at the same time. “Abi gezunt,” is the Yiddish phrase of old: “At least you have your health.” Everyone has something to be grateful for.

8. Happiness doesn’t mean the end of achievement: You can be dissatisfied with somethin and not let it make you miserable. You can be happy and still want more. You will probably always want more.

9. Be engaged in the world: Relationships, true connectedness, bring lasting joy.

10. To thine own self be true: Our sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Take care of yourself: your body, your health, your mind, your spirit.

11. Give to the world: “And If I am only for myself, what am I?” — that crucial component of Hillel’s famous three-part quote. President Bill Clinton, in his new book, “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World,” presents many reasons to give, one of them being it is the best way to make yourself happy.

12. Decide to be happy now: As Hillel said, “If not now, then when?”

— AK

Silver screen love life

When I was 12 years old, I spent a steamy L.A. summer cooling off at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills watching old Oscar Best Picture

Award movies, including “How Green Was My Valley,” “Mrs. Miniver” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”

That was the first time I saw “Gone with the Wind.” As a pre-adolescent Jewish girl living in the middle of Los Angeles in the 1970s, I had absolutely nothing in common with Southern belles living through the Civil War era, however I was transfixed by the images of romance and drama. When I closed my eyes, I saw the movie image of Rhett and Scarlett standing at the bottom of Tara’s red-carpeted staircase as Rhett reached down to sweep Scarlett into his arms and carry her up into the darkness. To my innocent mind, it seemed the height of sexual passion.

But their ardor was short-lived. Gradually, Rhett became increasingly disengaged from Scarlett, frustrated by her refusal to stop taking him for granted and her inability to acknowledge any feelings of intimacy towards him. And for her part, Scarlett had never stopped pining away for the married, and very cool, Ashley Wilkes.

Of course, when I first saw the movie, I was positive that Rhett would return to her. Although he can’t be accused of giving mixed messages. I mean, how much more direct can someone be than, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” But this was Hollywood. Didn’t movies always have to end happily? Wasn’t that the rule? Obviously, I was still too young to realize that there are consequences for one’s actions, and that taking someone for granted is never a good idea — Hollywood or not.

It has always been easy for me to get caught up in the world of fantasy through movies. However, the problem with that is that it is easy to stay in a place of denial. In the world of Hollywood, time doesn’t move forward. People don’t age. Scarlett could take all the time in the world to figure out a way to get Rhett to fall back in love with her.

Unfortunately, in the real world, time passes whether we are ready or not. And we are sometimes stuck in a particular stage while others move on around us. This all reminds me of Internet dating. Single people are all too familiar with the pitfalls of the online dating experience. Internet dating creates the perfect backdrop to hold onto our fantasies of perfect mates, as well as project perfected images of ourselves. We airbrush photos. We subtract a few years. We refuse to see flaws, or we project them onto other people.

The entire process can become addictive. After all, most single people crave companionship. Yet while staring at the computer screen, it seems so hard to settle on one profile, when, with the click of a finger, you can move on to the next one. It’s like finding a new snack at Trader Joe’s. There is always the potential that the next profile will be better than the previous one.

However, the good news is that I am less likely to engage in this “grass is greener” phenomenon these days. Most of us assume that someone else is happier than we are. This way of thinking is rapidly becoming one of our favorite national pastimes.

I don’t know — maybe it is part of being a psychotherapist, but it is so easy to idealize others, until you actually hear the personal struggles of individuals who are sitting across from you in your office. It is the old adage about how we see people’s outsides, but we rarely have access to their insides. And I am grateful for, and humbled by, my clients’ willingness to share their pain with me.

The hardest challenge for me is staying open to possibilities and not shutting off my desires, even though they haven’t yet come to fruition.

On my good days, which are most of the time, I realize that I have succeeded in moving forward and achieving some of my goals. A while ago, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t going to wait until my honeymoon to travel to Italy. So I didn’t. I was standing in my darkened apartment when I heard the taxi honking its horn to take me to the airport, and I began to cry. In that moment, I felt an incredible sense of exhilaration that I was not waiting any longer to begin my life.

That experience helped me realize that there is no “perfect” moment, just like I have realized I don’t have to maintain the fantasy of being perfect for other people. A few years after my trip, I returned to graduate school to get my master’s in social work, and I now have a career that fulfills me completely.

I took a trip to Club Med Cancun and had a romantic fling with a Mexican aerospace engineer. I became a doting aunt. I went to the pound and found the perfect dog to help disarm typically wary Angelenos into spontaneously reaching down to pet him. (He is also the perfect icebreaker for approaching cute men.) I hike and work out regularly with a personal trainer. I have recently become involved in a growing synagogue community and have begun to discover the value of becoming a participant, rather than an observer, in most aspects of my life.

I’ve become increasingly grateful for my dear friends, family and health. For nontoxic hair coloring. For the 2006 mid-term elections.

I have managed, if not mastered, the art of single life in a major metropolitan city in the 21st century.

Now I am more ready than ever to have a relationship with a real, flawed, man — not with the idealized fantasy of perfection epitomized by Ashley Wilkes.

I just hope he speaks English.

Roni Blau is a psychotherapist living in Los Angeles.

Is everyone weird?

After three months of a hopeful re-entry into dating life — Internet, setups, chance meetings — I had to hang it up. It had started out just fine. Possibilities were popping up
with flash-frame, Internet-inspired regularity and, suddenly, my 40s had seemed inspired by the twinkling of new romance opportunities.


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There was the crazy writer and father of two who adored his sons, the straight-but-cute doctor who loved his work, the music producer who was quirky, brilliant and charming, and the extreme sports guy who pursued like a prince.

But just 12 weeks after starting down these promising paths, I had crawled back into the wallflower-solitude of my I’m-not-dating-anymore closet.

What sent me into high-security hiding was not the effort of dating.

I actually like that part. (Though, God knows, Internet dating can be a black hole of a cottage industry that consumes hours, the way “The Blob” consumed whole towns.) Time vortex noted, I still enjoy the newness of trying on new energies and the grace-filled possibilities inherent in dating new men.

But the problem is — truly from my heart I have to say this — everybody’s weird. Everyone seems to have issues. And not just little issues, either.

And though I suppose we’re all weird or skewed or tweaked or somewhat bent in some way or other — especially after 40 — it’s still not a wise dating strategy to mistake those fabulously flowing bright-red-flags for a welcome parade.

So when the 40-ish, cha-cha-cha writer introduced me to his son, told me he was “playing for keeps,” then casually mentioned that he was already sleeping with a woman in San Francisco, I felt it best to run for the hills.

When the cute-but-straight-looking doctor (Dr. Drag-His-Feet, my girlfriends dubbed him) picked me up in his Ferrari, told me for the ninth unsolicited time that he wasn’t gay and announced that he was looking for a woman who looked like Kate Beckinsale, I felt it best to stop going to the hardware store for milk. The boy didn’t have the goods.

When the music producer, the extreme sports guy, the guy from my friend’s softball game and the date who said he was 5- foot-10 but was really 5-foot-5 each in turn revealed what was weird enough to read “STOP! WARNING!” — I just lost my will to work at this, threw in the towel and gave up.

I’m not saying (and how dull to take such a stance at this point, anyway?) that every man in L.A. is weird. I could certainly make a case for royally weird and skewed women in this town, too. But what happens when I’m drawing one slightly awry (all right, bent) experience after the other? Is it me? Is it them? Is it just that one has to sift through a lot of dross to get to the one gleaming, precious stone?

I’d love to say that this is an L.A. thing. But who cares? This is where I live. I’m not one to denigrate my town (which I like for the most part), nor one to take the God-looking-down stance of “Yes, my child, there’s partnering available for everyone — but not for you fools that try to date in L.A.”

But here’s the rub: If I’m drawing man after man with twisted little “isms,” I have to stop and ask myself why I keep attracting them. Damn them, but all of those seminar-inspired relationship books have actually made some impact on my psyche, and that well-themed what-you’re-drawing-is-a-reflection-of-where-you’re-at idea is totally haunting me.

So in the midst of the dating pool, I’ve had to step out, dry off, re-evaluate what I’m looking for, where I might find that and take a long, hard look at the messages I’m putting out.

It’s my opinion that none of us who are single at 40 are rocket scientists at love (or we wouldn’t be so uncomfortably solitary in the first place), so drawing the weird requires a little seaside introspection, a new charting of the waves and a definite refocusing of the ship’s trajectory.

My ex-husband, when asked, will say that the reason he doesn’t date is “everybody’s got so much baggage that I just can’t take it.” And though that may be a middle-age, 21st-century realism that probably includes all of us, I still believe in love after 40.

My wise girlfriend likes to say, “We late bloomers get to have happy endings, too.”

So as I prepare to check my own baggage on the shore and dive into the deep seas one more time, I pray for the courage (in a world of imminent land mines) to avoid the weird, and to believe that possibly in the process, I can find peace and happiness in the arms of the true, the solid, the faith-filled and the devoted.

May my late-bloomer happy-ending find me — and find me soon.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and her folk-pop CD, “I Burn,” is online at

War enhances intensity of Israel trip

The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed

“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

God Is Gray

“This is heaven,” I announced Sunday afternoon.

Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.

“Heaven,” I said. “Yep,” everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky — free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud — “this is paradise.”

Heaven, paradise — choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.

I’d probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?

How dull. How boring.

Those are the synonyms for “cloudy,” along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure — not the ideal forecast, to say the least.

What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn’t it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.

And yet, this week’s parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren’t singing much about sunshiny days, for, “so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night” (Numbers 9:16).

No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God’s house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, “and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped.”

Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.

And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?

Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.

According to the portion, God’s presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring — or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.

Here on earth, that’s how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience — to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.

From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds — we welcome the haze.

A cloud sheltered the Divine’s residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?

God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still “in heaven” that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.

Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.

Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.


Singles – Walk Out the Door

Mr. Chauvinist. Mr. Cheapskate. Mr. Paranoid. Mr. Habitually Late. Mr. Whiner. The parallel universe of “Little Men” of the 21st century are alive and well and living in Los Angeles — and my friends have, unfortunately, dated them all.

The friends I refer to (I’ll call them, “The Crew”) are all funny, attractive, nice, well-rounded, educated — who’ve stayed with Mr. Wrong far longer than they should have.

During a recent car trip, my sweet, insightful boyfriend of five months commented that it wasn’t fair that a girl he knows — cynical, sarcastic, not very personable — has a boyfriend, while the girls in The Crew don’t.

“Yeah, but look what’s she’s got,” I told him, referring to a guy so nebbishy that he makes Woody Allen look hip and so socially inept that even the guys from “Queer Eye” would throw up their hands. “Who wants that?”

Before I found my incredible guy, I was engaged to someone whom I went out with for two and half years — probably two years too long. Of course, after we broke up, everyone I knew said that he was just “OK” and that I deserved someone better.

My friends asked me why I stayed with him as long as I did when I knew I shouldn’t have. I told them that in this crazy, mixed-up world, perfectly smart girls stay in relationships they know they shouldn’t because it is easier to be a couple than solo — and to have to endure the dreaded dating game.

During silent prayer at Shabbat services, after I’ve prayed for the well-being of my family, I pray that all of my friends find love and happiness (if you ask that for yourself it is considered selfish for some reason, but I think it works if you delegate the good thoughts to a friend). And boy, could my friends use all the prayers they can get.

One of my L.A. Crew members went out on several dates with a guy — and things were looking good: He called her every day to see how she was and took her out on several fun dates during the week and on the weekend. Seemed like a prince until he turned into Mr. Paranoid and accused her of lying to him about everything and dating guys who had been her friends for years (which she didn’t do).

He then morphed into Mr. Stalker, calling her multiple times after she informed him that it wasn’t going to work. But before she pulled the plug, she asked me if she was doing the right thing.

This incredibly smart girl was second-guessing her gut reaction because of a larger nagging fear about being a single in a land of couples.

Another L.A. Crew member met Mr. Omission on JDate — he lied about being a smoker, then covered up by saying he was only an occasional smoker. She was so wrapped up in the idea that she needed a guy that she was willing to settle for this walking ashtray — until she met the guy she’s with now (we’ll call him Mr. Thank God, because he’s so much better than what she had).

My best friend dated a guy who was incredibly sweet, but she felt no chemistry. She told me that when they were alone he was fine — but she felt no sparks; when they went out with friends, he barely said anything. She broke up with him after several months of rationalizing.

This isn’t just a problem for the girls, either. How many guys out there have dated Ms. Clingy, Ms. Critical, Ms. Stalker, Ms. Shopaholic or Ms. Whiner — and stayed with them far too long? (I think my boyfriend’s exes fall under four of those categories, from what he’s told me.)

Think about it: The networks spend millions of dollars on new shows every year, but are perfectly OK with canceling something that isn’t pulling the ratings. If they don’t feel bad about canceling “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” surely we shouldn’t feel bad about the time and money we lost on a bad relationship, when in the long run a better show will come along.

The key is knowing when to say adios — and sometimes it takes a nasty wake-up call.

Think Chris Parker in “Adventures in Babysitting,” who discovers her boyfriend at a romantic restaurant with the school slut — on their anniversary. Or Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” who let Mr. Big toy with her heart for years, much to the chagrin of her friends. Luckily, after several years, their relationship ended up working out — maybe because Aleksandr Petrovsky was so much worse.

I’m not a matchmaker, but the Dolly Levi in me thinks everyone should have someone — just make sure you aren’t settling for Mr. OK when you deserve Mr. Wonderful.

No Small Actors, Only Fake Parts

“Le Grand Role” has laughter, pathos, in-jokes, heartburn, self-caricature — in other words, it’s a really, really Jewish film, even though the characters insist on speaking French.

The film’s concept is cute, although it could have gone astray in less-skilled hands.

Maurice (Stephane Freiss) is one of four good buddies in Paris, all Jewish, all in their late 30s, and all actors who scrape by on commercials, dubbings and bit parts.

The big chance comes for Maurice when legendary American director Rudolph Grishenberg (Peter Coyote doing a takeoff on Steven Spielberg) comes to town with his latest project: an all-Yiddish movie version of “The Merchant of Venice.”

After his buddies ambush the director in shul, Maurice gets a tryout for the role of Shylock. He does a curiously moving rendition of the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue in Yiddish and gets the nod from Grishenberg.

The actor rushes home to break the life-changing news to his beautiful wife Perla (Berenice Bojo). The two are crazy about each other, to the point where Maurice surreptitiously takes photos of his wife at work in a clothing store.

Perla stuns her husband with some news of her own. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live.

A couple of days later, Grishenberg finds a name star to play Shylock and dumps Maurice. But how can the actor tell Perla, when only the belief that her husband has finally made it brings her some last bit of happiness.

So the four buddies concoct a scheme pretending that Maurice still has the part and is doing just great. Every morning, a limousine picks up Maurice to take him to the “studio,” he poses for fake photo shoots and interviews, and when Perla phones Maurice on the “set,” the buddies provide the necessary background sounds.

In a final desperate move, the friends kidnap Grishenberg and convince him to visit Perla’s bedside and tell her what a great actor her husband is.

To get the director to that point takes some doing, and when his kidnappers ask him to lie about Maurice for the greater good, Grishenberg delivers the movie’s top laugh line, “I can’t lie. I am an American and Americans don’t lie.”

The bittersweet ending is honest, if not entirely satisfactory, but director Steve Suissa, working off Daniel Goldenberg’s novel, maintains an unforced balance to create an appealing slice of life, French Jewish style.

“Le Grand Role” opens this Friday (9/30) at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.


You Are Not Alone

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read the opening words of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I closed the book to wonder if it was true. Were all happy families alike and unhappy families unique? So many years later, as a pulpit rabbi, I still disagree.

In parshat Naso, we are introduced to the rituals concerning the sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. If a husband becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, he is to bring her to the priest who concocts a truth serum mixing dust from the sanctuary floor, water and a few dissolved curses. If the wife is innocent, she remains healthy after drinking the bitter water. If she is guilty, she suffers a miscarriage.

At first, the practice seems uncomfortably similar to the trials of seventeenth century Salem. However, one wonders if the ritual, which appears to humiliate a woman publicly, is also in a quiet way trying to protect her. Reading it, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy’s myth that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are each desperately lost and alone.

The sotah ritual takes an unhappy family, one where there is great potential for anger and abuse, and draws them out of their private homes into a sacred and safe space. The message is that the husband is not to take matters into his own hands. In verse 12 we read: “If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him….”

Rashi understands the “him” in this verse to refer to God. With this insight, suddenly, the infidelity becomes a crisis between the adulterer and God as opposed to husband and wife. It is not about the spouse.

In verse 14 it is written that a spirit of jealousy comes over the husband, as if the jealousy came from an outside source, and is out of his control. Rather than allow the situation to escalate more and more out of control within the walls of their home, the husband’s suspicions become a public concern, and how it is handled becomes a priestly matter. Their pain is taken out of their house, and brought into God’s. The husband is not alone in his jealousy.

The wife, also, is not alone. The Talmud explains that before giving her the waters to drink, the priest tries to find excuses for her, saying: “Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much…. He tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah, and the affair of Judah with Tamar. Both of them, he tells her, had confessed their deeds and were not ashamed. What happened to them in the end? They inherited life in the next world” (Midrash Raba).

Often a congregant comes to me when their family is in crisis. Perhaps there is jealousy, anger, sickness, infidelity, and/or abuse. I find that so much time and energy is spent being stunned that this could happen. Little if any strength is left for building a healthy future. I find people have more trouble forgiving their partner for breaking the illusion of happiness than forgiving for whatever actually happened. When sadness strikes, people feel as if it is only happening to them, when, in truth, a rabbi may have heard similar stories from a number of families — each traveling with their own private well of deep, deep pain.

On Friday nights, the bimah is often filled with people receiving blessings for a wedding, a birth, birthdays or anniversaries. However, never would a couple come before the ark, in front of their congregation, to receive a blessing of guidance when their marriage is suffering. How humiliating. We rarely ritualize bringing our pain to God. We bring our families’ happiness, but pain is kept dangerously to ourselves.

In Jewish Women International’s Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, it is written: “The myth that Jewish families are immune from abuse enables a system of missed cues, thereby preventing appropriate intervention. Jewish women themselves often delay seeking help or more often never seek help at all.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 25 percent of women have been raped or abused. The American Journal of Public Health said that one-third of all teens report experiencing some type of abuse in their romantic relationships including verbal and emotional. The Jewish community invests so much into the making or wanting shidduchs, however we invest terribly little in infusing holiness into the daily labor of maintaining those coveted relationships. It is true that we cannot go into people’s houses like the priests of old who would be invited to inspect plagues on the walls. However, we can invite people into our house, into the synagogue, by acknowledging that pain exists, and by creating avenues by which families can bring not only their joy, but also their most burdensome sorrow.

All happy families are not alike, living in Camp Happy, while the rest are on the outside all alone. Pain is inevitable to every family, and so to remain healthy, try to stop being surprised by your sadness. Stop thinking, “Why did this happen to me?” and instead think, “I guess now is when this happens to me.”

Use that same energy to think creatively. Use that same strength to invite God to turn your bitter waters sweet and curses into blessings.

Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.


When Sad Things Happen to Good Kids

“The Boy Who Didn’t Want To Be Sad” by Dr. Rob Goldblatt (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004).

After taking his children to see a pleasant Disney cartoon, Dr. Rob Goldblatt thought there would some animated chatter about the film during the drive home.

Instead, there was silence, and tears.

“My kids started crying and said they never wanted to see the movie again,” said Goldblatt, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and father of three. “All they could remember about it was that the hero’s father had died.”

At that moment, Goldblatt, was torn. As a father, he wanted to protect his children from grief. As a psychologist, he realized that running away from unpleasant feelings only serves to inure you from pleasant ones to come.

Instead of dwelling on the lachrymose movie, Goldblatt started telling his children a story which he made up on the spot, about a boy who tried everything possible to never be sad, only to find that the best way to deal with sadness is to acknowledge it and live through it.

Inspired by the moment, Goldblatt turned the story into a children’s book, “The Boy Who Didn’t Want To Be Sad” (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004), which he illustrated as well.

In the book, the boy decides that he wants to rid his life of everything that makes him sad. So he goes away to his secret place in the shade of the trees, and is happy. But then he’s struck by the thought that the trees will lose their leaves, and that makes him sad. He leaves the trees, and retreats to his room, where he watches videos and makes a huge tower with his blocks. “But every story has sad parts,” Goldblatt writes. “Blocks fall, toys break, game pieces get lost. He’d had it with everything.”

The boy continues to shut himself off from the world so that he never comes into contact with anything that could possibly make him unhappy. And, ironically, what he finds is that running away from sadness makes him terribly sad. The book ends with the boy embracing everything that he rejected, and riding the waves of emotion that are part and parcel of human existence.

Although the book is written for children, Goldblatt asserts that its message is crucial to healthy emotional development in adults as well.

“If we learn to be scared of feelings and run, we keep running because the feelings keep coming,” Goldblatt said. “This is the very thing that causes or worsens every psychological and relationship problem I treat in my office. Feelings are brief, but the problems we develop to escape them last a lifetime.”

Goldblatt, who in his practice treats everyone from “celebrities to soccer moms,” said that the secret to happiness is not to feel disconnected from sadness. Society places too much emphasis on the material keys to happiness (i.e., getting good grades, going to a good college, having a lucrative profession) and not nearly enough on the emotional ones. And it is the emotional equilibrium, according to Goldblatt, that makes the difference between a satisfying life, and an unhappy one.

“Unfortunately, feelings come as a set. You don’t get to choose to just have one,” Goldblatt said. “What most of us learn to do as a kid is, when we feel bad, to just push those feelings away. Parents are often annoyed with displays of emotion, and [tell kids] to walk it off. Parents think they are teaching their kids to cope with it, but what they end up doing is teaching them how to push away their feelings. And in order to have happiness, you have to feel. You have to stay with the emotion [and realize] that feelings are temporary. They come and go like a wave. They grow in intensity and then they come down all by themselves.”

For parents, helping children deal with their tears is a three-step process.

“First, you look at [the situation] and make sure there is no major damage,” Goldblatt said. “Then you tell them that it must hurt, and then you kiss it and make it better. And then pat them on the butt and send them out to play. Staying with them when they are feeling something uncomfortable is a very powerful experience. They don’t have to throw a tantrum because they have your sympathy, and what you teach them is courage.”

But even if you didn’t get that nurturing as a child, it’s never too late to mend one’s approach to processing emotions.

“It is less important what you feel than it is that you feel. Be as intensely engaged with life as you can,” Goldblatt said. “The more you feel the richer your life is going to be.”


Baker Finds Right Recipe for Success

At 3 a.m., when most Orange County residents are halfway through their slumber, Solomon Dueñas leaves Aliso Viejo and begins the 15-minute commute he’s made nearly every morning since 1988.

The 54-year-old arrives at Solomon’s Bakery and immediately relieves the three bakers who have worked through the night producing loaves of rye and challah, trays of delicate cookies and batches of heavily frosted cupcakes. Dueñas ensures that all pending orders for the bakery he owns are complete, then fills out accounting forms through the sunrise, until the first of four vans arrives at 6 a.m.

He helps load the vans that will distribute pastries throughout the county until Solomon’s 5 p.m. closing. But his work is still not done, and Dueñas remains to prep the returning bakers for another long night of work, not leaving until around 8 p.m.

Somewhere between the baking, supervising, manning the counter, visiting clientele at their homes and buying supplies, Dueñas takes a short midafternoon nap.

"I have to recharge the batteries, you know," apologized Dueñas, who always sports a sparkling golden necklace with the Hebrew word chai (life). "But I love working 18-hour days. I’m happy at my work, and happiness keeps me alive one more day. There are no successful men who work part time."

This intense dedication to his work belies the otherwise soft-spoken nature of Dueñas, a Salvadoran Jew who operates one of the county’s few full-fledged Jewish bakeries, which is located in an unremarkable Laguna Hills industrial park. His story is much like that of any successful immigrant’s, marbled with unexpected but fortuitous incidents, sleepless nights and ever-present charm.

He originally immigrated to Los Angeles in 1969, hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science.

"But life’s realities forced me to get a job," Dueñas joked, and he joined the invisible immigrant workforce for a couple of years. One day while visiting the Salvadoran consulate with a visa question, an official suggested that Dueñas enroll in a pastry program at a local college.

It turned out that the consulate knew about the delicious breads Dueñas baked privately for friends. It was a hobby he picked up in El Salvador as a youth, while practicing his Judaism in accordance with Marrano customs, a secretive way of life adopted by Jews who hid their religion under a veneer of Catholicism after the Spanish Inquisition.

Dueñas followed the consulate’s advice and enrolled in a baker’s college as a pastry chef. He soon parlayed the degree he received into a baker’s position at a Los Angeles-area Safeway. Safeway management was so impressed with Dueñas’ creations and attentiveness, that they asked him in 1986 to help open a new branch in Newport Beach.

However, Dueñas had bigger ambitions. Throughout the years, Dueñas studied the mystery of Jewish baking under the legendary Abraham Kaplan of Costa Mesa’s Kaplan’s Deli fame. Finding Orange County "lacking in Jewish food" and with Kaplan’s guidance and blessing, Dueñas opened Solomon’s Bakery in 1988.

"Mr. Kaplan told me that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to go out on my own," explained Dueñas, his voice dropping in respectful awe. "When I started Solomon’s Bakery, he helped with the baking, design scheme, everything."

"He insisted that I hire his best employee from him," Dueñas continued. "And he helped me find loans that allowed me to open. That’s something I’ll never forget."

Business was tough at first. There wasn’t much to Jewish life in Orange County during the late 1980s — in fact, Dueñas was a founding member of one of South County’s first synagogues, Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat. He remembers working 18-hour shifts and sleeping at the bakery during that rough first year and switching shifts with his wife, Sue, at the register and ovens.

But revenue rose exponentially for Dueñas through word of mouth, the development of South County and the arrival of Jews in the area — it’s estimated there are now more than 60,000 throughout Orange County, with a majority south of the 55 Freeway. Solomon’s was their manna in the Sinai that is South County. His staff grew from two to seven, and Dueñas expanded into catering, a full-stocked deli and cake decorations.

Dueñas keeps Solomon’s bustling primarily because of his care for customer and craft alike. Glass displays at Solomon’s are clean, highlighting all the favorites of the Jewish-pastry galaxy — stomach-stuffing babkas, fruity hamantaschen, crumbly rugelah. Even better is a Dueñas original that he calls an apple-raisin bran, a block of caramelized flour so decadent that customers drive in from San Diego and even Washington state just for a sniff.

Dueñas admits to being a workaholic, but he relishes returning home to spend time with his three teenage daughters, each of whom has a sandwich named after her.

"But I better be in bed by 10 every night," Dueñas said. "After all, the alarm goes off at 2:45 a.m."

Solomon’s Bakery is located at 23020 Lake Forest Drive., Suite. 170, Laguna Hills. For more information, call (949) 586-4718.

Pariah or Trendy?

I was born into a world of one-size-fits-all lifestyles: either I’d marry and have children or be a subject of gossip and humiliation.

In 1970, just before the women’s movement came into full swing, I married. At 20 I was a child, struggling to make a marriage work and separate from my Holocaust survivor parents. Education, career and independence hadn’t figured into my upbringing, but I often daydreamed about what my life would’ve been like if I’d had choices. My husband also questioned our traditional life and eventually we parted. At 27, I was terrified when my fantasies became a viable reality. But as I got my footing, I exploded into the new world of choice, greater opportunities for women, more tolerance for divorce and a growing awareness that happiness wasn’t about fulfilling my parents’ dreams. My late 20s through my 30s were an exciting time as I developed from a blurry image into a vibrant, four-color photograph.

Fast forward to 2004. I’m still single. Not immune from the expectations of family, society and my own biological and emotional pulls, I’ve moved in and out of deep longings to marry, have children or become a single parent. I’ve also experienced being single with no children as a liberating license to focus on me in a way my childhood hadn’t allowed.

A generation ago I might have been seen as a pariah. Now it appears that I’m part of a trend. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, 43 percent of all Americans 18 and older are single. Since 1980, there’s been a 13 percent increase in the number of single adults, and that number isn’t expected to decline.

The reasons are numerous. Economic freedom of women has created large numbers of women in no rush to marry. Men, long socialized to look to women to care for them, have the conveniences of technology to help them care for themselves in the most basic ways. In addition, with nearly one out of two marriages ending in divorce, the age of first-time marriages has risen. Longer life spans have created a large number of adults who live long after the death of a spouse, or whose marriages end after 20 or 30 years. Many will marry again, while others will remain single. And then there are those who might be like me, who later in life find themselves and discover a stunning release from external expectations.

The fact that activist and author Gloria Steinem waited until she was 66 to marry should prove that single adults are vital, intelligent and responsible. But as a society — we’re not there yet — single people still get a hard time of it.

Karen Gail Lewis, a Maryland-based pscyhotherapist and author of "With or Without a Man" (Bull Publishing, 2000), blames this on what she terms, "the cultural trance." Simply put, while statistics tell us otherwise, we have a deeply ingrained belief that only marriage will make us whole.

Colorado-based Daphne Rose Kingma, psychotherapist and author of "The Future of Love" (Doubleday, 1998), says this idea comes from our collective unconscious. We know that marriage isn’t working for many of us, but our unconscious is like a warehouse of primal needs and beliefs, hearkening back to a time when men and women needed each other for survival.

In the Jewish community where marriage and family are so highly valued, the single, happy adult is a relatively new concept. As it takes hold, what will become of the stereotypical Jewish parents, worrying about their child being single at 30 or 40 or 50? Especially when it turns out that this child isn’t commitment-phobic, selfish or in some other way damaged.

On the contrary, the correct adjective might be lucky. Not to be unmarried necessarily, but to be living at a time when there are so many choices.

So, here I am, living out my life in a way I hadn’t expected: Single, 53, not apologizing.

Sandra Hurtes is a Brooklyn-based writer whose essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Forward and other publications.